Student-athletes are ready to get back into practice and competition. On Friday they said they’ll do what it takes to return to their sports safely, with the hope of getting in some kind of season in 2021.

Participants in the statewide #LetThemPlayCA rallies at Tracy, West and Kimball high schools all wanted to convey the same message: High school sports have been on hold long enough, and student athletes are ready to get back to their sports as soon as state and local officials acknowledge that they can do so while protecting themselves and fans from COVID-19.

“There’s a lot of states playing right now, and if we do the same things they’re doing, be safe and wear a mask, I feel there can be a better outcome,” said Tracy High senior Aaron Montenegro, who plays football and baseball.

The last time he was with his team was during the fall, when it looked like new COVID-19 cases could be reduced enough so that his team could have a season.

“If we were responsible within those two weeks and no one got sick — and we were washing our hands, taking care of ourselves, wearing the masks — I feel it would have been fine.”

Terri Goularte, whose son Jason is a football player and a senior at Tracy High, organized Friday’s rally in front of Tracy High on 11th Street, which drew about 40 people. She said the parents and students need to send the message that sports are an important part of the high school experience.

“I don’t see any numbers, or anything saying that it’s not good for them to be back in school, to be back in sports,” she said. “It’s not just a sports thing. It’s their whole livelihood. Mentally, physically. Everything. It’s not fair to them.”

Halia Lewis, a sophomore who competes on Tracy High’s water polo and swim teams, also was part of the crowd in front of Tracy High, waving signs to elicit honks of approval from passing motorists.

“I just find it important to stand up for what we believe in, be motivated and positive that they’ll start sports up,” she said. “A lot of kids are losing their chances for making friends and socializing, especially during high school, because that’s what you do in high school.”

During the few weeks that teams did get together for practice, the athletes observed strict rules to prevent any possible spread of the coronavirus.

“The only time we could take our masks off was right as we got in the pool. Only two people per-lane, one on each side, and we were social distancing. We were doing what we could do to keep ourselves safe,” she said.

Those practice sessions turned out to be false starts. Local athletes have now missed two seasons of competition, coming up on three, because of COVID-19 restrictions. Friday’s rallies were a chance for athletes, coaches and parents to say that it doesn’t have to be this way.

The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that 35 states across the U.S. played football in the fall. Of the 16 states, including the District of Columbia, that delayed their seasons, seven, including California, have not played any sports this year. The NFHS also reports that 30 states have started indoor basketball seasons. In most of those cases spectators are limited to 25% capacity, with fans limited to family and friends.

While the California Interscholastic Federation’s Sac-Joaquin Section has suggested that athletes could be back in competition as early as the end of the month, they will also follow state guidelines that are based on infection rates, which are likely to remain high through the winter.

Jeff Pribble, who coaches football and track and field at Tracy High, said coaches around the state hope to make an appeal to the CIF to get in some kind of season this year.

“They’re putting a group together that’s collecting a bunch of data, that kind of supports that high school sports has not been a big spreader (of COVID-19) around the country,” he said. “I think the point of the data — and a good approach and a safe way to get back these kids some involvement — is that we could make a difference, even if it’s just to get out, run around and condition.”

He’s also confident that the student-athletes will do whatever they need to in order to get back into practice and games.

“I can tell you, in my 19 years here in Tracy we’ve never had so much excitement about being at practice and working hard and just wanting to be together with a group of people that you’re used to being with,” he said.

“When we shut down in November, before Thanksgiving, the last time, I think that’s where I saw the big difference. It was a big let-down for the kids. Since then, we know the numbers are scary, but we really are just trying to take a safe approach to getting them back out there to move around, just for their mental health.”

Tracy senior Jacob Shrout, who plays football and baseball, agreed that this year he and his teammates have a new appreciation for athletics.

“We took it for granted a little bit because we thought everything was going to get back to normal,” he said of the first round of practices in early summer. The mindset was different in the fall, when the SJS had tentatively set late December as the start of the football season.

“We all knew, this could be it. Especially the seniors, we practiced our hardest to prepare for the season just because we knew it could be our last time together, which it seems like right now if it keeps going as it is.”

Similar rallies were held in front of West and Kimball high schools on Friday. At West High, senior Jasmine Cochiaosue, who has been active in cross country, soccer and track and field, and also was the kicker for the 2019 Wolf Pack football team, said cancellation of sports is a disappointment on a few different levels.

“I guess you could say this year kind of was like a bummer because as a senior you expected to play all these different sports, and I was excited to kind of lead my teams through TCAL (Tri-City Athletic League) and winning all that and making it to playoffs. So it's kind of unfortunate with the circumstances we have right now,” she said.

“We're just hoping as of right now that we can start practices soon, and I'm just trying to have a good outlook on it and then hope that we can play our next seasons.”

Her father, Frank Cochiaosue, explained how lack of sports also affects seniors who hoped that athletic scholarships would help pay for college.

“She actually got accepted to 13 different universities, so she actually has some options,” he said.

“I understand that the state wants to be safe, I understand parents are very cautious about things that are happening, but you know, I'm kind of sad I didn't get to see the 2020’s do their thing last spring...they pretty much lost a year of this.”

• Contact Bob Brownne at brownne@tracypress.com, or call 209-830-4227.

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