Dane Jentsch

Dane Jentsch and the two-time defending state champion Grandview Zebras are set for their first practice of the 2020 season Monday. Jentsch is pictured here during a 2019 practice.

After months of uncertainty because of the pandemic, high school football practice kicks off Monday across the state of Texas — well, for some programs.

Monday marks the first day Class 4A and smaller schools can hold the first day of non-contact football workouts, so the Alvarado Indians, Godley Wildcats, Grandview Zebras, Rio Vista Eagles and Venus Bulldogs are set to take the field Monday as originally scheduled by the UIL.

Because of the UIL’s decision to delay the start of Class 6A and 5A fall sports seasons due to COVID-19 concerns in larger towns and cities, Cleburne, Burleson, Burleson Centennial and Joshua have to wait until Sept. 7 for their first football practices of 2020.

In Grandview, the back-to-back state champion Zebras will take their first steps towards a rare third straight title with practice No. 1 Monday morning, and Coach Ryan Ebner said all parties are excited to get back at it.

“After everything that’s gone on and all the time off and really just being away from our players, we were ecstatic just to be able to hold summer workouts,” Ebner said. “We had record numbers, like many schools, and those numbers stayed pretty steady throughout the summer. So first and foremost it was great to be able to do that and be around them. And now everybody’s fired up about starting football. 

“It was questionable during those couple months and now to be this close everybody’s excited to get going. Between the coaches, players and community, everybody’s fired up. There will be some changes but at the end of the day we’ll do whatever we got to do to get on the field.”

Two Johnson County head football coaches are entering their second seasons leading their respective programs in Godley and Rio Vista, and they’re both chomping at the bit to kick off the season after the past five-plus months.

“It’s real exciting,” Godley Coach Lowery said. “The kids are excited. It’s just good to have some normalcy. We’re excited about getting back into the swing of things. The kids have been working really hard and they want to see the fruits of their labor.”

“I’m excited for our kids,” Rio Vista Coach Kasey Black said. “They’ve had to wait so long wondering about are they going to get to play or are they not going to get to play. For more than anything, I’m excited our seniors will be able to play the game that they love.”

While there’s plenty of excitement about football practice beginning and the season scheduled to take place, coaches know they have to get their players accustomed to “the new normal” of wearing masks and social distancing when possible in order to have and finish the season.

“Our first meeting will be mostly be about player safety and what’s going to be the easiest way to accomplish those things,” Ebner said. “We’ve met all summer long about it and we have a good plan. So we’ll make sure the players know the importance of sticking to those things and hopefully following that will allow the season to go as smooth as possible. That will be the first thing we talk about and then we hope to get in our normal routine with meetings and practice and getting back to what we do.”

Lowery said doing all they can to protect players from COVID-19 is the coaches’ No. 1 priority.

“First and foremost is safety,” the Wildcats’ second-year head coach said. “We want to do everything we can to keep everybody healthy. We don’t want to be shut down, so that’s first and foremost is safety. We’re just going to take it day by day and work on getting better. It’s a little bit different this year but we’re going to adapt and just focus on getting better every single day.”

Rio Vista was scheduled to have a parent meeting Friday to go over COVID-19 protocols before practices begin Monday.

“We’re going to have a Facebook Live parent meeting and go over that,” Black said. “The face masks inside the building and in the locker rooms, all of that will be explained to the kids, just trying to get them to understand they have to do these things for us to have a football season. Then it’s just about getting back in the swing of things. We had a bunch of kids at summer workouts but it wasn’t everybody, so it’s about getting everybody back on the same page and getting back into a routine and rhythm.”

While there was plenty of uncertainty at times during the summer about whether or not the Texas high school football season would even take place this fall because of COVID-19, some coaches have been scrambling to make schedule changes not only because of the UIL’s decision to delay 5A and 6A football, but also because of decisions being made — and then walked back — via county orders across the state.

In Grandview’s case, the Zebras’ district schedule still hasn’t been figured out yet because of local orders in Dallas.

“Right now, everything non-district is fine; it’s just district,” Ebner said. “We have three Dallas schools. West was closed but now they’re back because they rescinded that order. We were going to play open schools vs. closed schools to begin with but now since West is open that’s got to be changed.”

Looking at things strictly from an on-the-field standpoint, the Zebras have been the class of the state for small-school football in recent years. As Grandview tries for an unprecedented three-peat, Ebner said replacing some key contributors that graduated will be something to keep an eye on, but he’s confident in the players poised to fill those roles.

“We definitely graduated some key players,” Ebner said. “Luckily we were able to get some work in during the summer since we didn’t have that time in the spring. We’ve got some depth; really and truly, we have more depth than last year. It will be like those kids who stepped up to help us win these state championships, it will be the same with other new kids stepping up. As coaches, we can watch these kids can play certain spots and see how we can best use them as we see what their strengths and weaknesses are and adjust from that.”

In Godley, the Wildcats will have a new starting quarterback for the fifth consecutive season after last year’s starter Ethan McBrayer moved to Aledo. The last time Godley had the same starting quarterback for consecutive seasons was Kaid Dalton in 2015-16.

“Our quarterback [Caden Burke] is stepping up,” Lowery said. “He was our backup quarterback last year and he’s excited to compete for that starting spot and take on the starter’s role.”

Additionally for the Wildcats, they’ve got to fill some holes in the trenches on both sides of the ball, but Godley will have a couple of experienced two-way starters to lead the way.

“We’re replacing our defensive line and half of our offensive line, but we’ve got some good young kids coming up that are excited to get their shot,” Lowery said. “We’ve got Kolby Bartlett who’s a three-year starter for us and we’re excited to see what he does on both sides of the ball. Parker Priddy’s another three-year starter we’ve got that plays both sides.”

In Rio Vista, the Eagles enter year No. 2 under Black, and the young head coach hopes that added familiarity will pay dividends moving forward.

“It’s year 2 in our system and our kids know us now,” Black said. “The kids are used to the way we coach now, so just looking forward to taking that step forward just overall. Is that going to be in wins or losses? I sure hope so. But now you’re not teaching fundamentals as much anymore. You are, but you’re not having to teach ‘this is how you line up as a receiver’ because they had never done that, but now they know. It’s just taking these little added steps forward because of the familiarity.”

When Rio Vista hosts Granger on Sept. 4, Eagles’ fans will get their first live look at the new turf field, which is on schedule construction-wise.

“They’re digging the holes for the field goal posts as we speak,” Black said. “The turf is supposed to be here Monday and they start laying that. It’s supposed to be ready Aug. 14.”

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