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The Holtville High School football squad returned to the gridiron for the first time in 15 months when all schools in Imperial County were cleared to begin practice on Friday, Feb. 26, in preparation for a COVID-shortened season. The Viking were the first to take the field Friday morning. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

Helmets On, Vikings: Holtville Football Practice Begins

HOLTVILLE — It’s been 15 months since football was played at Holtville High School, but Friday, Feb. 26, brought back the familiar sound of shoulder pads cracking and conditioning drills beginning.

Thanks to new guidelines issued on Feb. 19 that moved football from the Orange Tier to the Red and Purple tiers, practice was able to begin in Imperial County on Friday as the county’s COVID-19 numbers dropped below the parameter of 14-per-100,000 residents. Imperial County sat at 6.56 new cases per day per 100,000 as of Friday, Feb. 26.

Holtville High School senior running back Jose Devoux takes a handoff during the Vikings practice on Friday, Feb. 26. Devoux is one of 20 seniors on the Holtville roster for this COVID-shortened season. CAMILO GARCIA JR PHOTO

Holtville High’s football team was the first to take the field on Friday morning, and fourth-year coach Jason Turner said it was a bit of an awkward feeling when arriving on campus.

“It was awkward and emotional all at the same time,” Turner said. “A lot of the guys hadn’t been on campus in a year, but once we all got there and went through the protocols, a lot of the uneasiness seemed to go away.”

Due to regulations regarding the 2021-22 school year and football season, this current football season will have to be completed by April 17, according to CIF-San Diego Section.

Weekly COVID-testing requirements will be put in place for football players and coaches. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that the state will pay for the cost associated with regular testing of high school athletes.

“When the kids all got around each other and started talking to each other, it seemed to get back to normal,” said Turner, whose team features 20 seniors who were afraid they wouldn’t have a football season. “When we got on the field with the footballs, there was a lot of emotion.”

Senior linebacker Ryder Merten has seen his two favorite parts of high school return in the last two weeks, with the return of the band’s drumline practices and the return of football.

Holtville High School senior Jonathan Heraz wears a mask during the Vikings first practice of the season on Friday, Feb. 26. COVID protocols for football players include weekly testing, which is being paid for by the state, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

“Being back on the field today and looking up at the stands was very nostalgic. It was great to be back there with all the guys,” 18-year-old Merten said. “I’d totally lost hope. I was already changing gears thinking there wasn’t going to be anything going on this year.”

Vikings’ senior running back Jose Devoux said he’s grateful for any chance he gets to play this season with his team.

“It’s so crazy. When the news came out last week we were going to get to play, I thought it was fake news,” 18-year-old Devoux said. “It was awesome being out there today. I kept saying it was taking me back to the good old days.”

Turner said the 15 months since the last time the players were on the field has given him and his players a new appreciation for the sport and the opportunity.

“I talked to them all day today about playing with ‘house money,’” Turner said. “We weren’t even supposed to have a season, and we’ve been given this gift, so let’s go and make the most of it.”

The first opportunity for competition for the Vikings comes on March 12. That only gives Turner and his staff two weeks to get his team prepared. With no junior varsity or freshman teams during this COVID-shortened season, all the focus will be on the varsity squad.

“When we got out there today we were a little rusty, but for the most part it was just great being back on the field together again,” Devoux said. “We are so glad we at least get the chance to play.”

Holtville High School senior Jose Devoux goes up to catch a pass during the Vikings first practice of the season on Friday, Feb. 26. Devoux and the Vikings will open the season on March 12. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

At Calexico High School, the Bulldogs opened practice Friday evening with first-year coach Fernando Solano. It’s a tough situation for the new coach to assume the reins during a COVID-modified season.

“With having no time to prepare for a season or having an offseason, our main focus will be building a strong foundation that focuses on fundamentals,” Solano said. “I am excited for our seniors. They are getting an opportunity to compete and play for their teammates before graduating.”

Also in Calexico, Vincent Memorial Catholic High School began conditioning practices Friday evening with sixth-year coach David Wong uncertain how the border closures and wait times would affect his players, as 70 percent of his players reside in Mexicali.

“We had 27 players out tonight, and we know 10 more are coming, so we are in good shape,” Wong said. “They were all pretty excited and energetic tonight. It was the first time they’ve all seen each other in a while so the attitude was really good.”

Member of the Holtville High School football team warm up with some jumping jacks at the start of practice on Friday morning, Feb. 26. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO