EDINBURG — Coaches, players and teams from across the Rio Grande Valley are excited and appreciative of the opportunity to return to the gridiron this fall amid the global novel coronavirus pandemic, but perhaps none more so than those in Edinburg.
The football programs at Edinburg’s four Class 6A high schools — Economedes, Edinburg High, North and Vela — have faced months of delays and uncertainty as COVID-19 rattled the RGV throughout the spring and summer.
Like football programs at various school districts throughout the Valley, Edinburg’s teams were unable to participate in any spring ball this year due to the onset of the pandemic.
But when other team’s returned to the field for summer strength and conditioning workouts, the Edinburg schools stood firm in their decision to not allow on-campus practices or workouts until the local public health situation improved, delaying any potential return to the field and seemingly casting the likelihood of the season into doubt.
However, that didn’t stop coaches and players across the district from putting in work on their own while finding creative workouts to prepare to play this offseason.
“We’ve got to respect the decisions made by our administration, and it’s all about safety,” Edinburg High Bobcats head football coach JJ Lejia said. “We’ve got to understand that and follow that. Our kids did well. They worked out on their own and we had workouts posted online for them. We told them they had to be accountable for everything. They were responsible and did everything that we needed them to do.”
“It’s really taught us how to adapt and go with the flow. Our strength and conditioning guy, Coach (Max) Habecker, did a tremendous job at putting stuff out. Every day there was a workout going up for the kids just trying to get them to stay active,” Edinburg North Cougars head coach Damian Gonzalez said. “The kids did a good job of following along and getting their work in over the summer. Social media is a really good deal and we really utilized it as much as we could. Are we a little bit behind strength wise? Definitely, but I think everybody in Texas is there in the same boat we’re in. They’ve done a great job in our virtual workouts since we started school and coming out here to attend practices every day.”
The Edinburg school district decided in late September to allow all four of the district’s football programs to rev up and resume on-campus football activities again Oct. 5 under a stringent new set of health and safety protocols to keep student-athletes safe.
“It really boils down to what the administration has done for us and permitted us to be able to do,” Gonzalez said. “It boils down to our kids that have bought into and, at the end of the day, our coaches stressing to them how important it is for us to do what we need to do to accomplish what we need to accomplish (this season). We have a saying around here that hard work pays off, and it’s something I’ve said since my days as a head baseball coach. We used to put it on every shirt we ever made. You tell these kids hard work and they say, ‘No days off.’”
“The day we told them we were going to come out here (was) the day our administration went ahead and told us that we were going to be able to come out here. It’s been good. The kids are excited and full of energy, and so are the coaches,” Lejia said. “We’re tired of being at home. We haven’t seen them since March. It’s great to be around our guys. We always talk about building relationships. That’s what this is about; coaching is a great job.”
Student-athletes at Economedes, Edinburg High, North and Vela were equally excited to return to the football field and were appreciative of the opportunity to play out a shortened regular-season schedule, even with new social distancing requirements and other health and safety protocols.
“Aside from the mask and the new protocols, it was a huge relief to be back out on the field. It was great being able to see all the guys and finally get to do what we love,” Edinburg Vela senior quarterback AJ Sotelo said. “To be honest, there really wasn’t much of a difference. We were still able to ultimately just get our work in. They are just simple rules that have to be followed, and our guys are doing a great job of understanding that.”
“It was really exciting to get back together as a team and execute what we’ve been working on all offseason. Even though we don’t have a lot of (offseason time with the) team or didn’t have spring ball or fall camp, we’ve got to be prepared to be the best team and fulfill our roles (to make us) the Valley’s best,” SaberCats’ sophomore wide receiver Carlos Tamez said. “I’m not going to lie, it was tough to go on with the mask under our helmet (at first), but we have a really good coaching staff and trainers who gave us breaks when we needed them and provided hand-sanitizing stations and our own custom masks.”
Many coaches and players also feel that their extended hiatus from on-campus football activities has strengthened them in other ways too.
“We’re going to have the chance to do that this year in the sense that since we were able to work on the mental aspects of football a lot more than we have in the past because of the situation we were in from March to May. It allowed us to have some character building and help our kids evolved and mature mentally and have a little bit more football savviness, which is so, so important because we’re going up against opponents that have been playing football in leagues probably since they were in first or second grade,” Edinburg Economedes Jaguars head coach Gabe Peña said. “Knowing we’re going to have some more football savviness will allow us to finish games and (let us) know how important it is to do that. I think that’ll give us a chance. No matter how many weights you lift, you can’t replace the mental aspect of football so we’re looking at that as a big plus for us.”
The name of the game in 2020 will be adaptability, and Edinburg coaches and school district officials feel that their delayed start has put them ahead of the curve in terms of being flexible to meet the challenges of this unique season.
“We have a plan in our district to adjust to whatever may happen, so (we’ll see) however the ball bounces on a week-to-week basis. We’re going to ask a lot of our young kids and our coaches to adjust,” Peña said. “It’s going to be a different year and we know that. If you can’t adapt, it will blow up. We’re not going to let that happen because we want to have fun every week.”