It was 153 days overdue, but we put a bow on the 2020 North State football season on Friday. And make no mistake, the six- to seven-game season was indeed a gift.
For the players. For the coaches. For the parents. For the fans.
And Friday’s slugfest between Shasta and Foothill was more than a fitting end to what Cougars’ coach Joey Brown called “the longest, short season ever.” The 28-21 Shasta win had all the makings of a game more apropos on a frigid November night than a balmy, almost muggy, spring evening in April.
But after all the twists, turns, dips and bumps of the past 14 months, anyone associated with high school athletics was more than willing to trade the short-sleeves weather in order to see the COVID season’s fruition.
“This is exactly what we wanted this season – for games like this,” Brown said. “It comes down to the end with two good rivals; exactly what you want at the end of the year.”
Friday was filled with big plays, hard licks and all the drama that high school athletics brings to the field. And magic moments by seniors who almost didn’t get to experience the once-in-a-lifetime magic of high school football.
There was Foothill’s Cooper Laloli topping the 100-yard mark rushing for the fourth time this season with 105 yards and a touchdown.
There was James Weaver capping off his Shasta career with 184 total yards and two scores – igniting the Wolves with game-breaking runs of 64 and 48 yards while adding a 4-yard rushing score and 19-yard receiving TD.
There was Hayden Crook, a Burney football player who transferred to Foothill when the Raiders opted out of the season, running for 59 yards that included a 12-yard TD on his final high school carry.
Video by Tracy Holmes/Shasta County Sports
There was Layton Dunlap, the heady Wolves’ QB whose knowledge of the system and athleticism allowed him to engineer an MVP-worthy season where he finished 35-of-53 passing for 652 yards, nine touchdowns and zero interceptions.
The Wolves and Cougars showed the grit of championship football – Foothill looking for redemption after a 42-14 loss three weeks ago and Shasta looking to cap a dominating season stained only by a one-point loss on a failed 2-point conversion.
And while Brown and Shasta head man JC Hunsaker each praised their opponent and own squad, both said they were moments over the past nine months where it seemed as though nights like Friday weren’t going to happen.
“I was worried in December when I had to tell my guys ‘I don’t know if we’re coming back,'” Brown said.
A sentiment echoed by Hunsaker.
“You go back and forth on ‘Do we give up mentally? Do we continue preparing?'” he said. “I told our leadership group when they announced there would be a season ‘Hey, fellas there was a point when I gave up on this year and I apologize. But now that we’re in it, we have to be fully engulfed in it … and they were.”
As were all the Shasta County teams who opted in for gridiron action.
West Valley showed its championship moxie, even as controversy and a coaching change swirled around the Cottonwood campus. The Eagles methodically ran the table behind another MVP candidate in Holden Gilbert.
Central Valley showed it’s a program on the rise behind second-year coach Aaron Richards. No team squeezes more out of its talent than the Falcons.
U-Prep showed its heart as the Panthers had to heal on the fly after the too-young passing of head coach Darren Trueblood. Dustin Fortenberry and his staff continued to build on the culture Trueblood brought with him and honored their friend with a 5-1 season, the best winning percentage in program history.
Enterprise showed that despite one win that there are pieces to build around for the future. And the Hornets showed just how special running back Eli Cortinas was.
Redding Christian showed the heart of a Lion. The 8-man program did the almost unthinkable and played 11-man ball when it couldn’t find opponents and showed it can compete on any level.
Anderson showed it won’t quit – ever. The Cubs were the lone victim of a COVID cancellation, but kept grinding and came back after the quarantine to grab their lone win.
Foothill showed resolve with an end-of-season heavyweight showdown with Shasta after being humbled three weeks earlier. The Cougars made adjustments and proved Brown right when he said the first game wasn’t indicative of his squad.
And Shasta showed its senior class was filled with exceptional athletes. Dunlap, Weaver, Hunter Pinkston, Bryson Kimp and Jack Reindel were the prep version of the Rams’ Fastest Show on Turf, while guys like Michael Traylor and Bladen Stankey were flat-out nasty on the defensive side of the ball.
And when history looks back on the 2020 … or 2021 spring season … it should be noted that MVP awards weren’t limited to the guys on the field.
“The two biggest things that got me motivated were getting involved with the Golden State Football Coaches Association and then seeing some of our parents, like Dana Bell and others, getting behind us and leading the charge from the parents,” Brown said. “It’s a huge credit to our assistant coaches, the volunteers, the guys that have been sitting here since June waiting to volunteer for these kids. It’s a huge credit for everyone who worked so hard to get kids back on the field.”
It was the grassroots effort by a bunch of laser-focused parents. It was guys like Brown jumping on board with coaches group, whose pressure seemed to turn the tide in making the season possible. It was those assistant coaches and team volunteers who started and stopped and started again. It was the district and site administrations making it work despite a clogged athletic calendar and mounds of bureaucratic red tape.
“This is its own reward – seeing kids get to be kids and have some of the normalcy back in their lives,” Brown said as players posed for postgame pictures, shared hugs and even tears at the end of a journey that at times seemed out of reach.
And while the gift is the now-completed season, the lesson that high school athletics has taught us all this crazy season: Never quit; never give up. It’s worth the struggle.