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'A first day of school smell in the air': Local football teams return to practice

Andrew Clayton has grown to miss nearly every aspect of the high school experience during a rough year of distance learning.

“I miss hanging out with my friends all the time. I miss the bad cafeteria food, my chocolate milk with hamburgers at 11 a.m.,” said Clayton, a senior at North High School. “The social atmosphere of school is something I really miss.”

While he still has to find different places to socialize and make questionable dietary choices, Clayton, a senior running back and linebacker on the Stars’ football team, has finally been given an exciting reason to return to campus.

On Monday, North and several other schools in the Kern High School District held their first formal football practices since the fall of 2019. Days after the state ruled that outdoor sports could resume if COVID-19 cases continued to decline, the district approved a plan that allowed teams to begin official workouts this week.

Flooded with negative emotions for months, local athletes were pleased to feel an opposite sensation as they stepped back onto team facilities, preparing for a regular season set to begin in just over three weeks.

“It hurt all of us to be gone for a good minute,” said Ayden Moreno, a senior quarterback and safety at Bakersfield High School. “It’s been a lot of ups and downs for sure ... just being kind of lost and needing that getaway. But after awhile, just the faith that we were going to have a season, it motivated me a lot more. It feels amazing right now.”

Much of Moreno’s faith seems to have been instilled by his head coach Michael Stewart, who says he made every effort to keep his players motivated, even if it seemed at times like a season wouldn’t happen.

“Until they shut you down, until they say no, hope’s still alive,” Stewart said. “We believed that until they told us no, there was an opportunity. We just wanted to have an opportunity to get out here and we’re excited about it.”

On the first day back, teams elected to take different approaches.

While the Drillers JV team held conditioning drills in helmets, the varsity squad is spending most of the first two days back passing out equipment. Stewart plans to hold workouts with helmets later this week, then slowly move his players into pads as they prepare for the March 26 season opener at Centennial.

At North, the Stars worked out in helmets Monday and are expected to be in pads by the end of the week.

And though he expects to put his team through contact drills shortly, North coach Richie Bolin has stressed the importance of easing players back in after more than a year away, saying “we just want to make sure their bodies are right or the football aspect won’t even matter.”

The need to start off slow while simultaneously preparing for a regular season set to begin in just 25 days is going to be tricky, and some have expressed skepticism as to whether such a task can be pulled off.

Bolin says he understands such concerns, but after seeing the excitement that permeated throughout Monday’s workout, he’s eager to give his players a chance to take the field again.

“I know there’s a lot of skepticism in regard to if this is safe,” said Bolin, whose team is tentatively scheduled to open the regular season at Highland on March 26. “But this isn’t forced for anyone. These kids are volunteering themselves and so are our coaches. I want to give our kids a chance, even if it’s only for six weeks.”

After losing hope at numerous points throughout the last year, Bolin’s players expressed gratitude to be getting that chance.

“It’s almost like a first day of school smell in the air,” Clayton said. “There’s a lot more optimism. I’d given up on three separate occasions. It was very grim. But it’s happening and I’m just excited to be here.”