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Column: Completing spring high school football season a journey to celebrate

Mater Dei's Jack Ressler and Isaiah Lopez hug on the field while referees walk behind them.
Mater Dei’s Jack Ressler, left, and Isaiah Lopez hug after their team’s 34-17 win over St. John Bosco at Santa Ana Stadium.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Mission accomplished.

A six-week spring high school football season for the Southern Section that many thought was never going to happen ended Saturday night with a rousing celebration of personal water bottles being sprayed in the middle of Santa Ana Stadium after Mater Dei’s 34-17 triumph over Bellflower St. John Bosco in the unofficial championship game.

“The fact we did everything from June up until now, I was proud of my kids,” St. John Bosco coach Jason Negro said. “We played hard. This was an incredibly long period of time to have to work for six games, but I think it was worth it. For the kids, if you asked them if they had to do it again, they’d say yes regardless of the outcome.”

Said Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson: “What’s crazy is we have to turn around and play them in six months.”

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Much has changed since California and county health officials gave their blessing to let teams hold an abbreviated season in the middle of a pandemic as long as strict safety protocols were followed. There was chaos and plenty of frantic coaches and athletic directors trying to figure out how to pull it off.

All schools and players ever wanted was a chance. And they delivered no matter how many obstacles were put in their path.

There was mandatory coronavirus testing, and one positive test meant a game would be canceled. Parents weren’t allowed to attend some initial games. As positivity rates declined, confidence rose and a fierce determination to honor seniors who had lost so much after a year of uncertainty and inaction became the focus.

“The game didn’t end the way we wanted it to end, but I want to thank the seniors for leading us on the way,” St. John Bosco junior lineman Earnest Greene said. “The room was real dark and empty. We didn’t know if there was going to be a season. The seniors helped us push through. These six games are some of the most fun I’ve had on a football field.”

Let’s remember how hard this was to have a season. Some players didn’t make it, opting out for fear of injury that might adversely affect their college season in the fall. Others changed their mind and boldly decided nothing is going to stop them.

Among all the stories of perseverance, resiliency and adapting on the fly, few resonate as much as what transpired at Arcadia High. First-year coach Antyone Sims was limited to a three-game season after a positive test forced his team to quarantine and cancel its first two games.

The Apaches had 18 players, eight of whom had never played tackle football. To practice, Sims got some of his young assistants to volunteer and believe they still had game. On Friday night, down to 17 healthy players, Arcadia defeated Crescenta Valley 27-13.

Arcadia coach Antyone Sims addressing his 17 players as they knelt on one knee on the field.
Arcadia coach Antyone Sims addressing his 17 players after a win over Crescenta Valley.
(Rosa Guerra)

When players took a knee and gathered around their coach for a final time, they had accomplished so much. They learned about team work. The season would never have been completed without each one helping the other.

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“Man, we just had some unbelievable coaches and dedicated kids who bought in,” Sims said.

There was humor. Players started out not knowing how to put on shoulder pads. One player tried to down the ball on a punt not knowing that’s what the defense does. Another player didn’t know what “third down and play the stick” means.

“What’s the stick?” he asked of the yardage marker.

In the end, despite players never leaving the field to take a breather and enduring constant wind sprints in practice to help them get into shape, Arcadia prevailed.

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“Just proud of the effort to see their growth,” Sims said. “It was an awesome thing for a coach to see culture being created.”

Late Saturday night, there was 5-foot-9 Quincy Craig of Santa Ana Mater Dei getting a hug from 6-5 Matayo Uiagalelei of St. John Bosco. Craig engaged in hand-to-hand combat trying to prevent Uiagalelei from catching a 26-yard touchdown pass. He failed.

“It was pretty cool,” Craig said about being matched up against a giant tight end headed for future All-American honors.

Craig later turned in the biggest play of the game, forcing afumble that was recovered in the end zone by Mater Dei to stop a St. John Bosco comeback attempt. “Whatever I could do, I wanted to get the ball out,” he said.

For all the ups and downs and never-ending protocols and obstacles, this Southern Section football season wasn’t about wins and losses. It was about getting back up after being knocked to the ground and trying to compete.

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“Absolutely, it will be a year to remember,” Sims said.


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