By Landan Kuhlmann
The long road back to football for the area’s public schools is almost over, and there’s a growing sentiment among its coaches and players.
“We’re definitely ready to get out there,” Heights High School head coach Stephen Dixon said. “There’s a lot of excitement for the coaches, for the boys and the school just to get this thing going.”
The area’s other three public schools – Scarborough, Waltrip and Booker T. Washington – were scheduled to kick off their regular seasons this week, with Waltrip traveling to face Brazosport on Friday night and Scarborough and Washington playing each other Saturday afternoon. Heights’ season opener is scheduled for Oct. 10.
As part of the state’s largest classifications within the University Interscholastic League (UIL), Heights and Waltrip were permitted to begin practicing Sept. 7 and start playing games this Thursday, according the UIL’s COVID-19 guidelines. Scarborough and Washington, which are smaller schools that compete in Class 4A, could have started practice Aug. 3 and games on Aug. 27.
However, all HISD schools operated on the same large-school time frame. If not for the pandemic, the season would have started in August.
“Definitely not your typical year,” said Dixon, who is entering his 13th season as the Bulldogs’ head coach.
The sentiment was echoed by new Waltrip head coach Jeremy Kirt. He acknowledged that many other coaches in the region are dealing with the same issue, but it presents a particularly unqiue challenge in his first season with the Rams.
“I haven’t gotten the chance to sit down (with people) that often, because most of my time is spent online in the classroom or out on the field. Time to do anything else has been short,” he said. “When I took the job, the biggest challenge was the incapability to be able to reach out to my kids – the only thing I had was to be able to log in online with them once or twice a week.”
As COVID-19 forced the suspension of UIL workouts and large in-person district gatherings, Dixon and his staff have been conducting virtual meetings with their players amidst HISD’s remote learning that began Sept. 8. They have also sent the players instructions for at-home workouts to keep them sharp.
Ultimately, though, Dixon knows there’s nothing quite like strapping on the pads and getting ready for those Friday night lights. He has plenty of stars returning, with quarterback Jalen Morrison (2,441 yards, 22 touchdowns) and leading receiver Kendric Rhymes (551 yards, 7 touchdowns) back to lead his offense on the heels of another playoff appearance last season.
What’s more, he knows the sport and his staff can also serve as an outlet for his players.
“We just keep sending (the kids) positive messages and meeting with them to keep them engaged,” he said.
Since players came back a few weeks ago, Bulldogs players have undergone daily temperature checks and must wear their mask if not actively involved in a drill or play. The coaching staff also sanitizes equipment before and after each session.
Dixon said the district has given the school all it needs to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks. He said the plan to ensure their season stays is the same as on the field – the game plan means nothing without execution, and players are relishing the return.
“We’ve been trying our best,” he said. “But nothing is like being in person, getting the workouts in, and being able to actually hit somebody.”
And though Dixon and the Bulldogs will not get underway until next weekend, this weekend included plenty of action for the area’s football fans. First up was Waltrip’s Friday night game at Brazosport as the Rams and its seniors look to put last season’s 3-7 mark – and the COVID-induced delay – in the rearview mirror.
“I’m grateful we have the opportunity to be in game prep this week…Things are going to happen in life that you don’t control – all you can control is your response,” Kirt said. “Tomorrow might be another bridge to cross or another barrier to go through, but…I’m just looking for our kids to keep responding.”
Scarborough also is breaking in a new coach as Larkay James took over for Gary Howard. The Spartans look to build on a 2-8 mark from last season, starting with Saturday’s showdown against Washington at Cowart Stadium.
At long last, the wait is over.
“Football is back,” Dixon said.
The schedule for this week’s games involving the area’s HISD teams is below.
Waltrip at Brazosport, 7 p.m. (Hopper Stadium)
Scarborough vs. Booker T. Washington, 2 p.m. (Cowart Stadium)