After months of shutdowns, uncertainty and learning new normals, a longtime staple of small-town Texas living returned Thursday night in Galveston County as high school football players competed at Hitchcock High School’s Bulldog Stadium.
“It’s been a long journey to get to this point, that’s for sure,” Hitchcock head football coach Craig Smith said before the Bulldogs’ scrimmage against Tomball Christian. “The kids are excited. They’re just kind of happy to mix it up with everybody and see how we can do today and get after it.”
Hitchcock’s football players attended two months of voluntary strength and conditioning camps in which they followed strict protocols related to the COVID-19 pandemic while getting in shape for a new season — all the while not even knowing whether they would even have a season.
Then, the University Interscholastic League, which governs public high school competitions, announced July 21 that Hitchcock’s season could proceed as originally scheduled.
“It’s my senior year, so I’m glad that they brought football back,” said Davin Preston, who plays running back and defensive back for the Bulldogs.
Bulldog backers also were pleased to have high school football returning. Hitchcock resident Willie Shankle Jr. attended Thursday night’s scrimmage — which is essentially an advanced practice where two different teams run an agreed upon set number of plays against each other — to support his grandson Korion McNeal, a Hitchcock senior who plays outside linebacker for the Bulldogs.
“This is something they live for,” Shankle said. “To take this away just because of what’s going on, it’s understandable. But, the kids really want to get out there and play. They just want to play so hard and showcase their talent and do the best they can possibly do. That’s all.”
In addition to giving football players and coaches a final tuneup for the regular season, Thursday’s scrimmage offered fans a look at what attending high school football games will be like under the current circumstances.
Those attending Thursday’s scrimmage were required to respond to a COVID-19 symptoms survey and to wear face coverings, and bleachers were marked with areas where fans could and could not sit. Individual groups couldn’t exceed more than 10 people.
At 50 percent capacity, Bulldog Stadium can seat a maximum of 715 people on the home side and 550 on the visitors’ side. When the regular season starts Friday night at Bulldog Stadium with a game against Van Vleck, there are plans to mark off areas for fans to sit along the fence that circles the football field.
“We’ve got quite a bit of fence line where we can sit between 100 and 200 for standing-room only,” Smith said.
On the sidelines, players are spread out with chairs stretching from end zone to end zone rather than being bunched on the bench like normal.
“That’s a whole other dimension of preparing for a Friday night — sideline management,” Smith said. “You’ve always had that, but it’s definitely a little different this year.”
After Thursday’s scrimmage ended, rather than the traditional handshakes, each team lined up 10 yards apart facing each other to offer words of sportsmanship.
Kickoff for Hitchcock’s season opener is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Bulldog Stadium. La Marque High School’s football team starts its season Friday against Stafford with a 7 p.m. kickoff at Stingaree Stadium in Texas City.
Because of their larger enrollments, all of Galveston County’s other high school football teams will not start their respective seasons until the week of Sept. 24 under UIL’s guidelines.