Things got serious in a hurry for the Garces Memorial High School football team.
The mood was outright blissful when the Rams returned to practice recently. Though there were a few workouts held since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team hadn't held an official practice since a season-ending 33-20 loss to Hanford in the Central Section quarterfinals on Nov. 15, 2019.
And while a sense of joy remains, the intensity level has ratcheted up in recent weeks, and for good reason, as Garces is staring down a brutal schedule this spring.
With programs in the Kern High School District electing to only play each other, private institutions had to make their own schedules, and the Rams certainly didn't make things easy on themselves.
Garces' five opponents went a combined 48-16 in 2019. One, Bakersfield Christian, won a state championship while another, Sierra Canyon, was a state runner-up.
The potential murderer's row of games kicks off this Friday, when the Rams host Tulare Union at 7 p.m.
"The first couple days, everyone was so happy and then came the realization that we have one of the toughest schedules not just in Kern County but in the state of California," said Paul Golla, who went 5-7 in his first season at Garces in 2019. "The happiness and giddiness is over. It's time to go to work."
Things will get tough right away as the Rams try to contain Tulare Union, which returns several key contributors from a team that went 8-3 in 2019.
Returning quarterback Jorge Gonzalez will be throwing to senior wideout Willie James, who accounted for a whopping 19 touchdowns as a junior. The Tribe also retained running back K.J. Daniels, who ran for nearly 1,000 yards as a freshman last season.
Garces will have its share of firepower, though, as the team brings back plenty of experience on both sides of the ball.
They also have senior D-I commits on the offensive line and in the receiving corps. Aidan Meek (Sacramento State) will anchor the line at left tackle, while Ridgeview transfer Zion Hall (Cal Poly) will look to build on his 70-catch, 893-yard, eight-touchdown 2019 season with the Wolf Pack.
In the backfield, last season's leading rusher Jalen Smith (621 yards, nine touchdowns) will team with junior Ian Jernagin, a Bakersfield High School transfer who's already landed multiple Power-Five offers.
The offense will be led by another transfer in junior quarterback Travis Plugge, who threw for 534 yards in four games at Frontier in 2019.
Thus far, coaches and players say there's been great cohesion between new and returning players, with many returning to game shape far quicker than expected.
“I’m kind of shocked everybody’s out here in such good shape," said senior receiver and defensive back Dom D'Amato, who had a team-high five interceptions last season. "Not everybody stayed home and relaxed. It honestly took less than a couple days. Everybody was in shape as fast as possible.”
After such a prolonged wait to start their season, emotions are expected to be very high when the Rams are finally able to take the field Friday, and the senior-heavy group is eager to make up for lost time.
"There's going to be a lot of emotions off the field," Jalen Smith said. "Everybody's been waiting on it. It's going to be a show, for sure."
It's a show Golla is happy to be a part of.
"(I'm) just grateful for this opportunity and I think the kids feel the same way," he said. "This is precious and I think we all realize that now."