Sunday, March 28, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Fourteen football players boarded the sanitized school bus in the late afternoon at Moapa Valley High in Overton. Windows and vents were cracked to allow fresh air to flow into the vehicle, players were situated more than 6 feet apart and everyone wore face masks.
Two more buses, each carrying another 14 players and or coaches and support staff, were used to make the trip March 12 to Faith Lutheran High School in Las Vegas for the initial game of a truncated five-game, spring football season. Usually one bus would be packed with two athletes per bench, but COVID-19 distancing restrictions required the additional room and made for an uncharacteristically silent ride.
As the buses started on the 70-mile journey, a commute athletes in Overton repeatedly make for competition, it hit them: There was a football game to be played.
Finally, the end of the ban on school vs. school competitions brought on by the coronavirus was in sight.
“You were excited but had butterflies in your stomach at the same time,” Moapa Valley senior Justin Proffitt said of anticipation on the bus ride. “It was a little different, but you get used to it. We make do with what we have. We were going to play a football game. We would have done whatever they asked to get there.”
Nevada was one of about 10 states that didn’t allow scholastic football teams to compete in the fall because of the pandemic. The ban brought much heartache to small towns like Overton, where action under the Friday night lights is a can’t-miss event that helps bring the community together, much like in Texas or Ohio, where high school football is the undisputed king.
For prep athletes across Nevada, the ban meant more than not being able to play: There were no senior night festivities with mom and dad walking onto the field at halftime; rivalry games were canceled; and memories not made.
Some complained about what the athletes were missing. Others understood.
From November 2020 through mid-January, the Las Vegas area endured about 60 consecutive days when more than 2,000 people per day were testing positive for the virus and the area’s hospital system was nearing capacity. Those spikes meant schools had to continue with virtually learning. Without students physically in class, rules dictate sports can’t be played.
Some athletes, especially seniors who weren’t going to compete after high school, moved onto other activities. Others fell out of playing shape.
Many experienced emotional stress from not being around teammates. One was Valley High captain Axel Ramirez who, when speaking at a February School Board meeting, bluntly said, “I am sitting at home. I have failed all my classes. I haven’t learned anything, to be completely honest with you.”
In mid-February, as infection numbers were easing and coronavirus vaccinations were well underway, Nevada signed off on allowing football to return for most schools. “It was like letting a hungry dog out of the cage. Our kids were ready to go,” Pahrump Valley coach Joe Clayton said.
Left in the dark
The Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association announced Feb. 17 that a five-week football season could begin with games on March 6. Earlier that day, Gov. Steve Sisolak agreed to allow schools in the association to compete.
There would be no standings or playoffs, but there would be much-needed closure brought on by games.
Players, rightfully, celebrated. Coaches, rightfully, panicked.
For all of the planning they did in the weeks leading up to the announcement to prepare to welcome back players to the weight room and field, coaches were left flat-footed by the announcement. Everyone involved in the program was required to have a negative COVID test before joining activities.
Additionally, there is an NIAA requirement that a team conduct at least 10 practices before the first game can take place.
That’s a significant time crunch, especially when considering that not getting everyone tested on time would force canceling one week of games, or 20% of the season.
To make matters worse: CCSD didn’t have a concrete plan to test, Moapa Valley coach Brent Lewis said.
“We were in the dark. We never got a single email or phone call. We never got one bit of direction on how testing would take place,” Lewis said. “It got to the point where we knew they wouldn’t come through.”
That’s when Moapa Valley’s football program took matters into its own hands, coordinating with the Moapa Valley Fire Department to obtain tests from the Clark County Fire Department. The tests were transported to town by a local fire official and administered by Andy Rose, one of the Logandale area’s few doctors.
There was chain of custody paperwork to fill out, and test samples were sealed in protective bags before being sent off for evaluation, Lewis said. The end result was no positive tests. The School District has since provided the tests.
“Yep, all this to play,” Lewis said.
Pahrump Valley, which Moapa Valley played March 19, wasn’t as fortunate. It wasn’t able to secure tests from the Nye County School District in time to compete in the initial week of the season and is only playing four games.
Clayton said the Pahrump players have responded well to other COVID protocols, such as training in smaller groups, wearing a mask for parts of practice and undergoing wellness checks. Because Nye County has allowed small groups of students on campus since August, Pahrump Valley was able to continue weight training through the traditional fall season — although that brought on another problem, the coach said.
“More than anything it was mentally on the boys because they weren’t sure when or if we would get approved to play,” Clayton said. “It wears on you to prepare for a football game not knowing if it will happen.”
‘Let them play’
Eighteen of Nevada’s 19 school districts are participating in the NIAA’s spring football season. CCSD’s Las Vegas schools are noticeably missing, because most students still are learning virtually. Many have been vocal in expressing displeasure with decision-makers.
The Twitter account @LetThemPlaySoNV has been one of the most consistent voices, repeatedly posting at Sisolak and CCSD superintendent Jesus Jara with pleas to bring back all of youth sports. Basketball, at all levels, is still forbidden. The account often points out news coverage of large crowds on the Strip or limited attendance at sporting events such as the Vegas Golden Knights and wonders why gyms can’t be open. “Even California is playing ball and has fans in the stands. Clark County, you’re a joke!!!,” it posted March 7.
As Lewis started coordinating with players and his assistants to restart practices, he couldn’t help feeling guilty. His beloved program would be up and running, but those in Las Vegas that he has grown to admire over the years were left doormat.
“We were apprehensive knowing what all of the other schools are going through,” said Lewis, a Moapa Valley graduate who has won multiple state championships in a lengthy coaching career. “How am I supposed to feel good about playing?”
But he reached out to colleagues in the Southern Nevada High School Football Coaches Association who expressed how happy they were for his program. Hearing that gave him reassurance to move forward.
There are six schools competing in the spring football season in Southern Nevada — Moapa Valley, Pahrump Valley, Virgin Valley (Mesquite), SLAM Academy (a charter school), and private Las Vegas schools Bishop Gorman and Faith Lutheran.
While teams in the rest of the state are playing, those affiliated with programs at Las Vegas area schools are instead participating in 20 padded practices that will serve as a springboard to the upcoming fall season. Seniors in the class of 2021 initially weren’t included, but Jara insisted they were also involved.
The association worked with the district to coordinate the padded practices as an alternative to the missed games.
“If we didn’t have a season for a full year, that’s a big challenge with a lot of programs to develop kids and keep them safe,” said Rich Muraco, the Liberty coach and president of the coaches’ association. “We have to set the stage for discipline and installing the playbook.”
Going through the practices in pads is significant. Previously, spring workouts were done without gear such as blocking sleds or tackling bags.
“We are very thankful to the School District and Dr. Jara for having a true spring ball with pads,” Muraco said. “It’s hard to teach proper technique if you don’t have program equipment.”
Preparing for next fall
The small-town schools competing in games are also working to groom players for future seasons, knowing they could be at a distinct advantage in June when preparations ramp-up for the fall season. Lewis spent the initial two games rotating in all of the 30 players of his roster equally, including the handful of seniors.
“Our approach is this is a free change to prepare for next fall,” Lewis said. “We are trying to develop every kid.”
But with limited practices and no time lifting weights, spring football at times didn’t resemble what the players from Moapa Valley — a perennial class 3A power — were used to. They split the initial two games, falling to Faith Lutheran 41-20 in an opener that featured some uncharacteristic mistakes.
Players were noticeably a step slower and not in top physical shape. It was as if they had been thrown into a game cold turkey, Lewis said.
“Our kids fought, but they just weren’t ready to play football,” Lewis said.
Regardless, the players aren’t complaining.
Many on the Moapa Valley roster have been teammates since they were children, coming up through the ranks in the town’s junior program. Every play of every game is something they are cherishing, learning from the pandemic that competition at any level — COVID either paused or altered everything from the NFL to youth football — isn’t guaranteed.
“To come back and get to play with my second family, I can’t describe how grateful we are,” Proffitt said. “Every moment with these guys is special.”
It’s the same story at Pahrump. Two seasons ago, Pahrump won its first playoff game since 1978, and many players from that squad are now seniors.
Getting a farewell slate of games, no matter how few, is bringing closure.
“With us having small rosters, we really get close to these kids,” Clayton said. “They spend a lot of time working in the program. We are just happy to give them a few games to play in during their senior year.”