What Bay Area high school football is like amid COVID-19

The lights of Friday nights have dimmed. High school football games are being played with almost nobody in the stands, no marching bands, no smell of barbeque from the concession stands, no postgame handshake line.

More than 100 Bay Area high school football teams will experience the new reality this weekend. Last weekend, in the soft opening for a season that was almost lost to the pandemic, 22 teams in the area got a taste of Friday Night Lights in the time of COVID-19.

“It is weird to be here and have it be that quiet,” Half Moon Bay coach Keith Holden said after his team’s season opener last Friday night against Burlingame. “Usually our whole town is here.”

Less than 90 minutes before the start of Half Moon Bay’s season opening football game against Burlingame, a balloon arch for a senior night ceremony frames the empty stands at John Francis Field in Half Moon Bay, Calif., , Friday night, March 12, 2021, (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

It’s also weird to be playing football in March.

“I don’t know what month it is,” said Capuchino coach Jay Oca, whose Mustangs opened their season Friday night at San Mateo High. “To me, it feels like a fall. It’s football. The atmosphere is football.”

Most Bay Area schools have scheduled a five-game football season. The teams that played last weekend are aiming for six. Usually, high school teams play 10 regular-season games.

Even as much of California has exited the most restrictive (purple) tier in the state’s coronavirus reopening plan, bets are being hedged. Senior Night, an end-of-season tradition, was part of opening night at Half Moon Bay and De La Salle — a precaution against the season being cut short by another surge of the virus.

De La Salle quarterback Dorian Hale (10) walks with his parents during senior night before their game against St. Mary’s at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., on Saturday, March 13, 2021. This is the school’s season opener and their first game since last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

Before kickoff at De La Salle, the Spartans’ 36 seniors lined up six feet apart, flanked by a pair of family members, to be honored on the field individually. At Half Moon Bay, the Cougars’ seven seniors posed for photos under an arch of orange-and-black balloons.

“I’m treating every game like it’s my last one,” Half Moon Bay senior Connor Quosig said.

The Half Moon Bay players tried to make Friday night as normal as possible. They met at Jersey Joe’s at the end of Main Street for the traditional pregame meal. But instead of sitting together to eat at tables, they gobbled down their food while standing apart outside the sandwich shop.

Rather than prepare in a crowded locker room, they dressed in dugouts at the baseball diamond adjacent to John Francis Field. Burlingame’s players arrived individually in cars and did their final dress in the Half Moon Bay parking lot.

Ninety minutes before kickoff, school officials gathered the small group of spectators to brief them on protocols. Staffers stenciled Cougar paws six feet apart in the stands to remind everyone to keep their distance.

Burlingame sisters Marley and Sasha Meredith watch the Burlingame – Half Moon Bay football game from the roof of their car due to COVID-19 restrictions, Friday night, March 12, 2021,  in Half Moon Bay, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Fan attendance was extremely limited. Each player got two tickets for family members. Some students found another way. Four carloads of them parked in the student lot a quarter-mile away from the field and turned the misty night into a tailgate party, following the game on a live stream video on their smartphones.

Burlingame sisters Marley and Sasha Meredith sat on the roof of their car, craning their necks for a glimpse of the field. Although the evening did not include the festiveness of fall Friday nights, the Merediths were glad to have something to watch.

“It’s nice to see them out there,” said Marley, a junior who plays soccer. “We didn’t even know if they’d have a season.”

CONCORD, CA – JANUARY 15: Anouschka Wardy, of Lafayette, left, and Laura Malone, of Martinez, who both have sons on the De La Salle football team, take part in a “Let Them Play CA” rally in Concord, Calif., on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. The Let Them Play CA rallies were held throughout the state in hopes of restarting sports programs in schools. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group) 

Last month, after weeks of lobbying by groups of parents and coaches, Gov. Gavin Newsom approved a plan for outdoor high school sports to return.

At De La Salle, where a game typically draws 3,000 spectators, there were fewer than 200 in attendance Saturday.

“Just being out here is a win,” De La Salle coach Justin Alumbaugh said after the Spartans’ 35-27 victory over St. Mary’s-Stockton. “We can’t lose sight of it. I got every senior in the game. … I think it’s important to keep perspective.”

LAFAYETTE, CA – March 13: Despite missing nearly half the team due to coronavirus contact tracing, Monte Vista warms up, Saturday, March 13, 2021, for the season opener in front of nearly empty stands at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

At Acalanes High, just before kickoff Saturday night, the small crowd was greeted with an announcement over the public-address system. “After months of anticipation,” the P.A. announcer said, “football is finally back here at Acalanes High School.”

The Dons then went out and beat Monte Vista 33-27.

”It’s a feeling you can’t even describe, to finally be back out here, playing a real game for four quarters,” said Acalanes senior quarterback Brady Huchingson, who threw four touchdown passes.

LAFAYETTE, CA – March 13: Acalanes quarterback Brady Huchingson (8) looks for a receiver during the season opener against Monte Vista, Saturday, March 13, 2021, at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

It was the prevailing sentiment among those involved.

“To be able to finally get out and do something I have done my whole life feels like we’re getting back to a normal state,” said Danielle Daly, a senior on the Half Moon Bay cheerleading squad.

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