The first day of camp for Shasta College football is normally in sweltering triple-digit heat, the field at Memorial Stadium is dried up and there’s an energy and anticipation for the season that lies ahead.
These aren’t usual times.
Monday night was the first full-padded football practice in Shasta County since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March and Shasta College didn’t waste time to ramp up for its unique four-game spring season set to begin March 6 at home against College of the Siskiyous.
What may have looked like a routine fall practice day featuring individual position drills, 7-on-7 and full-team periods was jubilation for the Knights, even in the low-50s temperature, rain and water-logged field.
“It’s always a different feeling when you get to strap on the pads and get them clacking again,” said sophomore defensive back Jaiden Harris of Roswell, Ga., who returns after recording 15 tackles in eight games in 2019.
Shasta College athletic director Mike Mari told Shasta County Sports in January that junior colleges follow the Guidance for Higher Education rules and don’t operate under the youth sport guidelines, which dictate high school athletics based on California’s color-tiered system. According to the Higher Ed plan, Shasta is expected to follow standards adopted by the NCAA but local health departments could impose additional and stricter restrictions or requirements.
The NCAA guidelines, which were last updated Sept. 25, classify each sport as a low-, medium-, and high-contact risk sports but do not mention colored tiers or tie them to COVID rates. As of Monday, Shasta County is one of 53 counties in the widespread and most restrictive purple tier, none which have not been cleared to play football.
In December, Shasta opted-in to play a shortened spring 2021 season with 16 other teams in the California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA). All members of the program – coaches, players and training staff – have been through the rigors of daily COVID testing and staying updated on health and safety protocols for the chance to suit up, said Knights head coach Bryon Hamilton.
“Thankful” was the most common term at Monday night’s practice for those who made it possible.
“It took a lot of work collectively by a lot of people to get us on the field,” said Hamilton, who guided the Knights to a 7-4 mark in 2019, reaching the Golden State Bowl. “It feels great to be back on the field doing what we love to do. Some players lost a lot in a lot of areas on and off the field due to COVID. But we’re able to get some sense of normalcy back and excitement.”
Despite the typical routine of football season being interrupted – attending virtual classes and wearing clear guards attached to facemasks – players have gained perspective during the pandemic.
“It’s definitely been a toll on my mental health; it’s been tough because I’ve been (playing) as long as I can remember and not having that for over a year is difficult,” said sophomore running back Tyler Boston of Dixon, who ran for 420 yards and six touchdowns in 2019.
“We’re all going through different circumstances and how we handle that adversity makes a difference about who we are and this whole thing taught us that.”
The Knights’ four-game schedule features a home-and-home series against Siskiyous and Feather River College, both familiar foes in the NorCal Conference. Butte, American River and Sierra each opted out. Shasta hosts Siskiyous and Feather River in back-to-back weeks on March 6 and 13, respectively, followed by a bye week. The Knights wrap up the season on the road to Feather River followed by Siskiyous. Mari said on Jan. 14 that only essential personnel are allowed to be present on the game sites which include players, coaches, trainers and referees. Spectators are not allowed, he added.
The CCCAA granted a free year of eligibility for fall sports during the 2020-21 school year, meaning playing in these four spring games doesn’t count toward their clock, which is important for transferring to a four-year university.
The non-football discussions about limitations and safety protocols are integrated as regular procedures just like film study and conditioning. But for 76 players and another 10-plus coaches, Monday’s practice signified the transformation from hope to reality about being on the field for the first time in a nearly year.
“At the end of the day, when we get out here, it’s still football,” Hamilton said.
2021 Spring Football Schedule
4 games – all at 1 p.m.
3/6 – Siskiyous at Shasta
3/13 – Feather River at Shasta
3/20 – BYE WEEK
3/27 – Shasta at Feather River
4/3 – Shasta at Siskiyous
4/10 – BYE WEEK