After months on the sideline, football players can shed their envy and get back to playing games.
The Metro League is the latest in Washington to end its high-school football layoff due to the COVID-19 pandemic with each program playing a five-game schedule. Friday’s season kickoff is also rivalry week in most cases.
For Eastside Catholic and O’Dea, it’s also a rematch of the 2019 Class 3A state championship. The Crusaders won the December game 20-12 at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup, marking the last time either team has played a competitive game.
Friday’s 7 p.m. meeting in Sammamish ends a 14-month wait for the rematch. But coaches had fewer than 14 days to prepare.
“There’s no time for fine tuning,” Eastside coach Dominic Daste said. “I feel like we’re participating in one of those cooking shows where you have 30 minutes to make a five-star meal out of tuna fish and bubble gum. We’re probably starting with a little better ingredients, I’m not going to B.S. myself.”
True. Eastside senior defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau — the No. 1 recruit in the nation, according to 247Sports.com — will suit up. And Daste held small-group conditioning sessions throughout the fall and winter.
But Gov. Jay Inslee clearing King County in January for Phase 2 of his “Healthy Washington” reopening plan meant football practices with helmets didn’t start for the Metro League until Feb. 22. Players have barely spent a week practicing in full gear.
“We’re still being very cautious on what we do, but because we have a fair number of kids returning from last year’s team, we know that they’re going to be fine,” O’Dea coach Monte Kohler said of practices the past week.
The Irish expect to start seniors in lineman Owen Prentice, a University of Washington commit, two-way standout Milton Hopkins Jr. and linebacker Styles Siva-Tu’u, who are Husky walk-ons.
“The focus is there and since it’s a short season, it’s nice to have a meaningful, big game right out of the chute,” Kohler said. “These will be some games that they’ll never forget, that’s for sure.”
Washington is among the last state in the U.S. to hold a football season, and the Metro League is behind many leagues across the state that have already started playing games. KingCo, WesCo and the North Puget Sound League aren’t slated to open their seasons until next week.
But the blat of the horn section in Garfield’s marching band, rowdy antics of Bothell’s student section and gravity-defying tumbling from Kentwood’s cheer squad aren’t expected to be part of the game-day atmosphere.
Although Inslee’s plan does permit 200 people — including players, coaches, officials and referees — to attend sporting events, the Metro League has opted to not allow spectators. Other leagues are establishing “gate lists” to comply with rules and some leagues allowed a few cheerleaders and physically distanced band members for the home team.
Football teams must wear masks at all times. Even when playing.
Everyone involved is accounted for in case there’s a need for contact tracing. For most of the Metro and KingCo leagues, temperature checks and attestation forms will be used for health screenings.
The Northshore School District is providing its athletes and coaches with COVID testing. Those schools — Bothell, Woodinville, Inglemoor and North Creek — will also only play each other in a four-game season.
Some of the anticipated games pre-pandemic won’t happen. Woodinville upset a star-studded Kennedy Catholic squad in the Class 4A state playoffs in 2019. The Lancers return UW-bound quarterback Sam Huard and future Pac-12 receivers Jabez Tinae (UW) and Junior Alexander (Arizona State), but the seniors will not have any opportunity to avenge the loss, which ended their undefeated season in 2019.
Same for Bellevue and Eastside. The Wolverines’ last football game was a state quarterfinal loss to the Crusaders. Due to KingCo regionalizing games, the defending conference 3A/2A champs will play a four-game schedule against Class 4A programs in Mount Si (twice), Skyline and Issaquah.
“What’s funny is these were the teams we were playing when we were little,” Bellevue senior quarterback Bryson Sleeper said of junior leagues on the east side. Mount Si quarterback Clay Millen, who’s signed with Nevada, was also the top QB for his class in the Wildcats’ youth system. “We just haven’t played them in recent years in high school. That’s another element of excitement. … But we definitely wanted another shot at Eastside. Who knows if they would’ve even gotten that far this year?”
The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association will not hold state tournaments for any sports this school year. Many leagues across the state are not hosting postseason tournaments. Some are offering a title games between the top two finishers of the truncated schedule.
For teams already adjusting to safety protocols and playing without spectators, the lack of a playoff means their metrics for success must also change. While every school should at least get a season opener, multiple games across the state have already been canceled due to positive COVID tests.
Bellevue senior defensive lineman Matulino Masunu started small in formatting what he’ll define as a successful season.
“For the first time, I feel like I love the soreness and appreciate the soreness,” said Masunu, a Central Washington commit. “Everybody has worked so hard to stay in shape and stay ready for this one moment. We’re here now, so we’re going to do our best to make the best out of it.”
No one doubts the games will still be competitive. Many spent the past six months envious of high-school teams across the nation playing games whether it was before large crowds or empty stands.
For the Metro League, that yearning ends Friday.
“Success is actually the opportunity to play,” Kohler said. “Here we are and this is game week. That’s the No. 1 success that these kids get an opportunity to play football or whatever sport they might be participating in. Things are happening. It took a lot of work to get to this point so I’m excited.”
Pandemic football: What to watch
The football season-opener for the Metro League is Friday while the KingCo and North Puget Sound League will kick off next week. Here’s what to expect:
ATTENDANCE: The Phase 2 mandate for Washington’s reopening plan permits 200 people at outdoor sporting events. Because the full football roster for both teams, officials and stadium staff factor into the cap, the NPSL and Metro League opted to not extend attendance to fans and parents. Various KingCo schools are still exploring ways to host parents and/or have students, cheerleaders and band members.
WHERE TO WATCH: More than 50 high schools in Washington are offering free livestreams of their football games through justagamelive.com. Streaming for some Metro League games can be found online at NFHS Network.
GAMES TO WATCH: Eastside Catholic, the two-time reigning Class 3A state champs, will host O’Dea in their season-opener Friday at 7 p.m.; Archrivals Garfield and Rainier Beach will face off Friday at 7:45 p.m. at Memorial Stadium; Lake Stevens, a Class 4A power, will host Archbishop Murphy, a Class 2A power, at 7 p.m. on Saturday; Bothell, the Class 4A state runner-up, will play its KingCo rival in Woodinville at 6 p.m. at Pop Keeney Stadium on March 13.
RECORD TRACKER: The delayed season won’t stop Kennedy Catholic quarterback Sam Huard’s shot at breaking the state’s career passing record. The five-star recruit needs 1,303 passing yards to break Brett Rypien’s career total. The former Shadle Park star threw for 13,044 yards in 39 games from 2011-14 before playing at Boise State. Huard has thrown for 11,741 yards and 132 touchdowns in three seasons.