IT WAS A GREAT DAY TO PLAY SOME FOOTBALL
Much has been said about this being the most-anticipated football season in a long time. Not only were spring sports cut short, we have been quarantined since mid-March and to top that off, it is the 100th season of UIL-sponsored high school football.
Since I began covering six-man football in 1993, I have come to recognize that the beginning of the season can get a bit chaotic. Due to the size of the schools, enrollment changes, kids get hurt early and several teams are never sure if they are going to field a team until two-a-days begin. That’s just the nature of the beast in small towns.
Of course, this year was more insane than usual leading up to actual games being played. At least 10 games were changed or cancelled between just Wednesday and Thursday due to COVID, injuries and a just plain lack of numbers. There was a part of my brain that thought the season may not even get off the ground.
Thursday, I felt I had no choice than to try and attend one of the first games of the season. I needed to see the coaches, players and fans. I needed to hear the PA announcer welcome everybody to the game. I needed to drive and feel the anticipation of a new season.
So, I got in the car and decided to drive two-plus hours from Austin to Morgan, Texas to catch the Eagles as they hosted the Penelope Wolverines. This wasn’t expected to be a close game, Penelope was a 45-point favorite, but that didn’t matter. I was going to see an actual live sporting event and stand on the sideline.
I was excited as I drove north. I always go back to what every coach says at the beginning of a new season. How everyone is 0-and-0 and it’s a fresh start. You can be a freshman ready for your first live action or a senior trying one last time to capture a state title, but everyone is making the memories of a lifetime.
The drive up I-35, already strange due to last six months and the uncertainty of what lies ahead, was made even stranger by the TXDoT signs repeatedly stating that I-10 was closed at the Louisiana border due to Hurricane Laura. It seemed as though the Gods had lined up against us.
Before I even reached my turnoff near Waco, my phone started to light up with texts from several coaches. I checked my watch and saw that two more games had been cancelled due to COVID, including one late game I was potentially going to try and catch on my way back home that evening. I drove another 30 minutes then pulled over to make sure my game was still on and share the unfortunate news I had just heard.
When I arrived in Morgan around 5:15 p.m., it was hot and humid, but the field looked great and both teams were already warming up. I walked onto the field, masked up, and had a nice chat with both head coaches: Morgan’s Eddie Aviles and Penelope’s Randall Ballew.
Aviles was concerned about the new cases that had been reported that day. Several of his players have relatives at one of the schools and he worried that his program, already suffering from the injury bug and suiting up only seven players, would be forced to shut down for several weeks.
Ballew explained how different the situation was as a visiting team.
“Usually we come over in the bus and change in the locker room”, he said. “Tonight, we had to wear our uniforms on the bus ride over. When we got here I had them all go to the restroom and wash their hands. On the way home we won’t be stopping like we usually do to grab something to eat. It’s straight home.”
By 6 p.m. some fans had trickled in, including several coaches from neighboring schools. The teams lined up for the National Anthem played over the PA, but they skipped the school songs. Morgan had a couple of cheerleaders on their sidelines, but Penelope’s didn’t make it until the middle of the first quarter.
It was now time to play some football.
Morgan won the toss and elected to receive and at 6:02 we had kickoff.
The Penelope kicker whiffed the ball and it went about six yards, but the 2020 season was underway!
Morgan went four-and-out. For those not familiar with six-man, there are very few punts, especially when you start with the ball near midfield.
Penelope took advantage quickly, scoring just a few plays later when Keenon Redden caught a 10-yard pass from Isaiah Garcia. A Jose Herrera PAT made the score 8-0, with 5:38 remaining in the first quarter. It was more than likely the second score of the young season, as it was reported that Aspermont may have scored two minutes earlier in their game against Valley.
Redden wasn’t done. On the next Morgan possession, he intercepted an Eagle pass and raced 43-yards for his second score of the quarter. He later added a 23-yard touchdown run on Penelope’s next possession and the Wolverines went up 22-0 early in the second quarter.
The game may have been a blowout and both teams were showing early season jitters, but everyone was in the moment. Fans were screaming. Coaches were screaming. There were some great hits on the field too, always followed up with some excellent sportsmanship and a helping hand. Heck, the referees even had the jitters, twice blowing the ball dead as it bounced around on the field.
Penelope led 36-0 at the half. There were no bands. There was no concession stand either, but you could buy a bottle of water at the front gate. The teams did not head off to the locker rooms, but rather spent halftime on the field.
Did I say it was hot and humid?
Penelope got the ball to start the second half and promptly scored. This was followed by Morgan fumbling on their first play of the half. Penelope capitalized and just like that, the game was over, 48-0.
The teams knelt and prayed together on the field (from a distance) then gave their best wishes to each other. There was not a whole lot of hanging around. Just a quick drink of water and it was back on the yellow dog for both teams.
Afterwards I spoke to Coach Ballew about what it was like to finally be on the field playing.
“With all the stuff that has happened surrounding COVID-19,” he said, “it was awesome to be on the field and see the kids rewarded for the hard work they have put into it.”
He added: "We started talking about the many things that could transpire on the first day of practice. Today may be our last day, so let’s make it a great day to be a Wolverine. We have a plan in place if we get that dreaded call. Interruptions can be fixed and some cancellations can be handled by finding another opponent. Football may throw us a curve-ball, but life will continually throw curve balls at us. This is an opportunity for us to teach our young men how to deal with, and overcome, adversity."
NOTES FROM WEEK 1
It was a tough weekend for teams in the top 10 of Division II, as seven of the 10 teams in the preseason top 10 fell, all to Division I squads. Only one team got a pass as Richland Springs was open. Only Jayton and Grandfalls-Royalty picked up wins.
Of note, top-ranked Rankin from Division I held off a top-ranked Balmorhea from Division II, 38-36.
Westbrook shocked 2019 Division II state finalist Motley County, 58-36. Over the last week I had been warned of a potential upset here, as many coaches around the state feel Westbrook is a team to look out for.
Calvert, Strawn, Blackwell, Gordon and Groom all dropped Week 1 games to Division I opponents.
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