After 15 months away, the mood was already at a peak when the Garces Memorial football team took the field on Friday night.
Things only got better as the evening progressed.
Quarterback Travis Plugge threw three touchdowns, kicker Abraham Gonzalez had a record-breaking night and the Rams defense only allowed two drives to go beyond the 50 in a 43-6 rout of Tulare Union.
The night was already a good one before kickoff, as the game was the first to be played in Kern County since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down athletic operations a year ago.
"It's so unbelievable," Rams coach Paul Golla said. "I'm just so excited for our kids and the energy they had, the excitement they had. That's why you coach. A lot of these seniors got an opportunity to show how hard they worked and it showed off today."
It certainly did.
Five of the Rams' six first-half possessions started on the Tribe side of the 50 and four of those resulted in points.
Quarterback Plugge, who threw for 147 yards and connected on touchdown passes to Loren Johnson (29 yards) and Zion Hall (8), while Ian Jernagin scored on a 1-yard run.
The defense, which made a goal line stand in the first quarter, got into the scoring as well as Jalani Smith sniffed out a bubble screen and snagged it out of the air, returning it for a 12-yard score.
Despite all this, the star of the half may have been kicker and punter Abraham Gonzalez. Gonzalez kept the Rams' second touchdown drive alive by gaining nine yards on a designed fake punt run on third-and-six.
He then worked his way into the Garces record book on the final play of the first half. With a gusty wind at his back, Gonzalez was able to push a 52-yard field goal over the cross bar. The kick topped a previous school record of 47, set by Steven Mahlmann in 2001.
"For (the kick) to be at the end of the half, and like, everyone's just staring at me. It just felt so cool," Gonzalez said.
All this happened in his first career varsity game.
"For this to be a debut, set a school record, get a first down on a punt. I couldn't ask for more," Gonzalez said.
The special teams unit made another big play in the third quarter, as Logan Bowers blocked a punt and the Rams recovered at the Tribe 4. Backup quarterback Julian Smith scored on the next play.
Though they lost a shutout late, that was the only blemish for a Rams defense that otherwise dominated a Tulare Union offense returning several key starters from an 8-3 finish in 2019.
While the size of the deficit likely surprised many, Golla included, some Rams players weren't taken aback by the outcome, and expect to face continued success as they get deeper into the season.
"I had a vision this was coming," said Plugge, who added a 55-yard touchdown pass to Dom D'Amato in the third quarter. "We watched plenty of film and spent hours on hours in practice preparing for this game. And we executed perfectly."
Garces is back at home next Saturday to face La Canada St. Francis at 5 p.m.