Sandy High School coach Josh Dill said getting to play football this season felt like seeing one of his players haul in a Hail Mary touchdown pass — improbable but unbelievably exciting.
"This past year has been tough, especially with the players not being able to take the field," Dill said. "But finally getting to play has mentally and emotionally lifted our spirits."
This will be the Sandy football coach's second season after he was hired in July 2019. The coach hasn't been able to catch a break in his early tenure — as that first season was a mad rush to prepare for the fall, and last year resorted to Oregon sports being punted with the pandemic.
But, Dill said he and his players learned not to take anything for granted during 2020, and are taking things in stride with the new safety protocols and shortened spring schedule.
The Pioneers' front half of the schedule is loaded with powerhouse teams from around the region. They lost their opener to Sunset High School Friday evening, March 5, by a score of 40-0 and have a bout against Central Catholic this Friday.
"We are fired up — this is a great group of kids who stayed with the program and prepared and trained throughout the offseason," Dill said. "This team is all in."
That Pioneer mindset is echoing throughout the region. High school football players are excited to be back, no matter how bizarre the circumstances have been.
Most teams played their first game last weekend after Gov. Kate Brown gave the green light back in January for fall sports — including football, volleyball, cross country and soccer. In two weeks organizers set up schedules, secured officials, created waivers and formulated safety measures around COVID-19.
Football practices ramped up late last month, and most conferences are hosting championship bouts between the top teams in their conferences at the end of a five-week schedule.
"It was a shock that we got the green light, so our kids and community were stoked," said Andy Mott, head coach of Estacada football.
The Rangers rallied late on the road in the season opener, with 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, but couldn't overcome Gladstone Friday, March 5, losing 35-22. Mott is excited about the youth movement on his squad, and wants to keep getting his talented sophomore and junior players more snaps in the coming weeks.
"We like to play a physical brand of football, we have a lot of tough kids," Mott said. "That's our mentality out here in Estacada — we are going to run the ball."
The Gresham Gophers are no strangers to toughness. They had a defensive slog against Franklin, losing a close opener 13-9. At half, the Gophers led 2-0 after a safety notched their first points of the spring season.
Gresham has two goals— ensure all the seniors on the roster have a great experience this spring, and build a base for the 2021 fall season.
"Our seniors are excited to play," said Coach Mike Melton. "Some of the guys were hurt last year and feared they wouldn't get to play at all."
The Gophers have 19 seniors on the roster who were chomping at the bit to get back on the field. Gresham has an exciting squad built around an experienced group of skill players and a strong passing game.
"We want to rely on our returning starters, play physical, and win games with a sound defense," Melton said.
That sentiment is shared in Sandy and Estacada, with a big emphasis being placed on making this strange season special for the seniors. Sandy has a senior class of five, and Estacada has four on the roster.
"During the delays all I could think about was trying to play for our seniors," Mott said. "It was important for our coaching staff to give them one last season."
The teams in Multnomah County must wait to allow fans into games, with a hard cap of 150 people for schools like Gresham. That means parents will have to tune into games virtually. In Clackamas County, which is further along in reopening phases, small groups of fans are being allowed in. During Estacada home games, 30-40 people can be in the stand, with priority going to parents of players. In Sandy the senior players get two tickets each for games.
"We know parents are chomping at the bit to see their kids play, so this is a baby step," Dill said.
All in all there is a sense of optimism for the athletes returning to play under the Friday — and Saturday — night lights. Every team is dealing with shortened practice schedules, having to play in the spring, and implementing safety protocols.
"All of us are dealing with the same questions around how ready we really are to play," Melton said. "But we are crossing our fingers."
But more than anything, everyone is glad to be back.
"I'm happy for our kids," Melton said.
In other first-week action: Barlow had a tough outing versus Grant, losing 26-0. ... Warrenton beat Corbett, 46-12. ... Pendleton beat Parkrose, 46-0. ... Central Catholic, the Mt. Hood Conference powerhouse, beat rival Jesuit, 35-6.
Upcoming football schedule:
• Sandy vs Central Catholic, 7 p.m. Friday, March 12
• Estacada vs Madras, 7 p.m. Friday, March 12
• Corbett at Clatskanie, 7 p.m. Friday, March 12
• Reynolds at Parkrose, 9 a.m. Saturday, March 13
• Gresham vs Lincoln, 6 p.m. Saturday, March 13
• Barlow at Jefferson, TBD Saturday, March 13
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