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Yodice: Finally, preps strap on helmets — and masks

Friday night lights are back.

Even some Friday night sounds.

The long-awaited, and now super-abbreviated, prep football season arrived Friday with nine games. Another 17 are scheduled for Saturday, and two more Monday night close out Week 1.

It will be a lightning-quick sprint from start to finish. It is only 28 days from Saturday of this week to April 3, the last day of this weird spring season.

Many schools will play five football games. Some will play four. Closer to home, two games or perhaps even just one. They’ll get a bite or two of this burger and it’ll have to do.

But getting a taste certainly beats going without dinner entirely.

It’s been an arduous journey to get here. It’s been 15-plus months since the last high school football in New Mexico – Nov. 30 of 2019, to be precise. The last calendar year has moved with a glacial pace.

Roughly 100 schools, or about 80 percent of the state’s football-playing schools, will participate in this spring football season to one degree or another.

The first prep game in the metro area is 1 p.m. Saturday at Albuquerque Academy, where the Chargers play host to Hope Christian. Menaul and Moriarty played road games Friday night.

Other local schools, such as Rio Rancho, Cleveland, St. Pius and Bernalillo, will join the party in Week 2. Los Lunas, Valencia, Belen and the entirety of Albuquerque Public Schools won’t be involved until at least Week 4.

Players will be wearing masks in football. And yes, it’s going to frequently be miserable for the athletes. The state of New York this spring is doing the same. This is part of the price of having a season.

COVID-19 has been an elephant sitting on our collective chests for nearly a full year now. It’s not disappeared, either; St. Michael’s had to cancel its Week 1 game at Raton because of a positive COVID test within the Horsemen program, and St. Mike’s also won’t be able to play in Week 2 versus Socorro.

The truth is, this is not going to be the only instance in which the coronavirus impedes a season. Just as college football teams had seasons interrupted and games canceled, there will be obstacles and postponements and positive tests at the high school level here, no way around that. This was always going to be the case. We hope the number of teams and individuals impacted is small, and that nobody becomes seriously ill.

There is some revised language regarding the length of the quarantine period for an in-season positive test. Instead of a 14-day program suspension for one or more positive tests among players or coaches, it has been reduced to 10 days.

The New Mexico Activities Association has helped to ensure that painstaking measures are in place with regard to keeping athletes, coaches and officials – and now fans – safe. More than ever, those measures need to be followed to the letter. Much is at stake.

On the subject of fans, I salute the Public Education Department for its decision to allow spectators into high school sporting events. It was the right thing to do. And it’s a measured, reasonable approach. The healthier the county, the more fans can watch.

After seeing 600 fans at a University of New Mexico baseball game last weekend, frankly, the state had little choice but to include the high school fans. Now the onus shifts to fans, who must prove the PED’s faith in them was well placed. Spectators have to wear masks and be socially distant at venues.

In terms of the actual football, has there ever been a season in New Mexico in which we talked so little about the quality of the teams leading up to opening night? We’ve had none of the usual buzz-filled run-up that goes with the start of a season. Plus, the Journal’s weekly prep picks feature with me and Ken Sickenger is a temporary casualty, needing to be scrapped until the fall season. (This is fortunate for Ken, as I surely would have dusted him.)

We’ll still have some fun matchups over the next four weeks. Like Clovis-Cleveland a week from Saturday in Rio Rancho. Those might be the two best teams in New Mexico. Overall, the quality of the football isn’t likely to be stellar, at least not at the start, but on the bright side, we probably won’t have many lightning-induced delays like we normally see in the late summer/early fall, and that’s a definite plus.

As for the format of the season, no, there won’t be a traditional playoff bracket, and that’s OK. We shouldn’t be crowning any state champions in football this spring. It is not feasible, nor is it equitable. Not with a five-game season. The idea of a bowl game-type finale in Week 5 sounds like a pretty good alternative as a one-off.

We will have football on the blue turf in Lovington. But not on the red turf in Escalante. This is the last season for Oñate, soon to be Organ Mountain High.

Through this never-ending maze, we have a month to enjoy football. These kids, in particular the seniors, richly deserve this chance to get back into pads and purge some of that pent-up pain and frustration that must have been building all these months.

That energy? Even masks won’t be able to conceal that.

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