Hampered by postponements and cancellations brought on by the pandemic, the San Benito High School Balers football team and their coaches spent most of the year wondering if they were going to be able to play at all. Practices were complicated by frequently changing protocols and the season was cut from 10 games to four.
But senior defensive end Joseph Dickerson, 17, is not focused on what could have been.
“It’s unfortunate that we don’t have playoffs, but I honestly will take whatever we get right now,” he said. “I just love getting out there with the team, getting padded up, and having fun. That’s what it is all about.”
It might be a short season, but the team had a long, hard journey before getting to play at all. Football is a year-round commitment. The season’s last game is usually followed quickly by the first day of practice for the next year. But when the school district stopped in-person classes on March 13, 2020, it also halted all sports activities.
The team was allowed to return to the field on June 23, but when the county moved back to a more restrictive protocol, the program shut down again on July 17.
Bryan Smith, who has been the head coach since 2016 and spent the nine years before that as offensive coordinator, said it was the prudent thing to do.
“For the summer conditioning sessions, we followed all the protocols and all the guidelines,” he said. “But everything was new to everyone. One person getting sick might affect the body of our team or spread to other teams. The one thing we never want to do is put our kids or their families in danger. We will do everything we can to look out for their best interests.”
Having practice end almost as soon as it began, coupled with uncertainty about whether it would ever resume, was hard on the players.
“The shutdown was heartbreaking,” said Dickerson. “But as a team captain, I could not lose any confidence for my team, or else we’d all go down. I had to keep things positive and just keep the team together. To keep myself mentally up, I would think about my parents and how far they had gone to support me in sports. Their belief in me helped keep me going forward.”
The second layoff period ran into the start of the school year. Smith, along with Athletic Director Tod Thatcher, Principal Adrian Ramirez, and Superintendent Shawn Tennenbaum, monitored the athletes as they struggled with remote learning.
“The one thing we were seeing at our school and across the state was a lack of students attending classes regularly through Zoom,” Smith said. “So we created what we called ‘academic teams.’ I put two of our guys who I thought were leaders in charge and had them hold the players accountable for attendance and grades.”
There were eight teams of eight to 10 players each and Smith had one coach on each team working with the student leaders.
“I think it was a really good move for us because we had the coaches reaching out to the players and it allowed everyone to stay connected,” Smith said. “But it was still a challenge to keep up team spirit. We did not have the luxury of being in the weight room, and our off-season is based primarily around that room. And in regular seasons, if we were not in the weight room we would be out doing team activities. We did not have that, either. So that part was the most challenging piece and it showed itself until our second game.”
When practice resumed in January, the need for stronger COVID protocols led to major changes in the way it was held. Before every practice, players had their temperatures checked and answered questions about their health. Squads practiced on different fields. Equipment had to be sanitized between each squad’s sessions. For a time, the players were not even allowed to use footballs.
“I had more time to throw with my receivers,” said quarterback Michael McShane, 17. “But we couldn’t all be together. We were spaced out on separate fields. We came and left at different times, so it felt like we were groups, not a team as a whole.”
Smith began the practice period with 96 players and by the first game, the number had dropped to 62. Some players decided to try out for other sports, were not up to the conditioning, or were concerned about possible COVID spread.
The delays and shutdowns took their toll. There were only eight practices before the first scrimmage.
“The time we had to put into skill-building and execution was very limited,” Smith said. “Typically we would have all summer to build the skills to execute our schemes.”
On March 30, the players took the field, much to everyone’s relief. All the same, the games have been closed to the general public, as attendance is limited to only two guests per player.
“We all worked really hard through everything that went on,” Dickerson said. “I would say that the team got through it and it helped to finally get some games going.”
After dropping their opening game to Saint Francis High (24-19) and coming close against Bellarmine College Prep (17-14), the Balers clinched a dramatic 45-20 win against King City High. They face Palma High in their final game on April 16.
Coach Smith is already looking forward to the next year when he hopes things will be closer to normal. But he is encouraging his players to take the events of the year in stride.
“This was nothing anyone could have expected,’’ Smith said. “We talk to our kids constantly about ‘control the things you have control over.’ We want them to be proud of what they were able to do with their effort, commitment and energy. But we did everything we could do to sustain them and keep them positive. And we have a great community supporting us.”
Dickerson and McShane have both started planning on life after high school. Dickerson plans to attend CSU-Sacramento, hoping to hit the field during his sophomore year after establishing himself academically. McShane has not decided on which university he will attend, but plans to eventually become a Hollister firefighter.
Ahead of the final game, McShane is putting a positive spin on how things went in a season damaged by the pandemic.
“We have one of the strongest teams I have been on,” he said. “I know we could have gone a long way, but at this point, I don’t try to think about it. I am just glad I got to play in my senior year.”
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