The mask that covered half of Tom Crawford’s face on Monday couldn’t hide his glee: Bishop Diego High’s longtime coach was ecstatic to see his Cardinals back on the football field.
“A couple of kids grew a few inches since we last saw them in March,” he said. “We were kind of anxious to see everybody. It’s hard to tell what the kids really look like from a Zoom meeting.”
California’s public schools aren’t allowed to begin summer training for at least two more weeks because of the coronavirus. The CIF-State office is waiting until July 20 to announce its plans for a return to sports activities.
That left Bishop, a private school that won the CIF State 3AA football title in 2017, as the lone South Coast high school to open summer football workouts this week under the cloud of COVID-19. A handful of the seniors who took the field on Tuesday played on that state championship team, giving the Cardinals high hopes of another title run.
“We started thinking about what this was going to look like in May,” said Crawford, who’s had his staff and athletes following the strict COVID-19 protocols recommended by the National Federation of State High Schools. “We have three grids on the field so our kids can train in their own little box. We’ve also taped off the weight room so they can work out in their own square.
“We moved a bunch of the weight-room equipment outside just so we can socially distance better. The kids rotate from some agility and field work and conditioning to weight workouts.”
Monday’s session, he conceded, was mostly an orientation meeting to acquaint his players to “the new normal.” It wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon that Crawford had his Cardinals engaged in a full workout.
“We had 59 kids, which is a real positive,” he said. “We still have kids on vacation because this time was originally scheduled as our dead period, so it’s a good sign that we have a lot of kids who are eager to get going.”
Nobody was more eager than Buddy Melgoza, a senior quarterback who has missed most of the last two seasons with a pair of knee injuries. He suffered the first one as a freshman during the CIF Southern California Regional championship game of 2017.
Melgoza completed 16-of-27 passes for 250 yards in last year’s first three games before suffering his second knee injury at the start of the Nipomo game. He was replaced by then-sophomore Michael Luckhurst (6-1, 175), who has not yet returned from his own injuries.
“It’s certainly good to see Buddy running around,” Crawford said. “He’s full-go right now. I’m really hopeful for his sake and for all the other seniors, especially, that they get to play this fall. But who knows?
“We’ll know on July 20 what that’ll look like when the CIF tells us what the dates are. The commissioner has been pretty adamant that they want to see three seasons of sports. We have a lot of kids who are going to be seniors and they’ve been really looking forward to their last season of high school football.”
Luke Knightley, who started as a freshman defensive back on Bishop’s state championship team, was also back on the field after reinjuring his knee during last year’s playoff game against Culver City. Knightley (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) made first-team All-Camino League last year as an outside linebacker and was the Cardinals’ second-leading receiver.
“He hasn’t been fully released but he’s doing some running, which is great to see,” Crawford said. “We’re hoping for a good season for him. He worked so hard after the first surgery to get back and played all the way last year.”
Also back is a starting line that was sidelined by injuries for large portions of last season. They include seniors Jordon Tagaloa (6-1, 285), Semisi Falemaka (5-10, 320 pounds), Parker Maho (6-3, 250) and Toby Pouso’o (5-11, 285), who started at center in the 2017 State Championship game. Junior Logo Va’a (6-2, 230) is also back after earning All-Camino League honorable mention on defense.
“Those guys are healthy and were all running around yesterday,” Crawford said. “The line on both sides of the ball has to be a key for us.”
Tagaloa has been receiving attention from college recruiters and has already been offered a scholarship from Morehead State, a Division 1 Football Championship Series school from Kentucky.
“He’s such a fine student that Yale has been in constant communication with him,” Crawford said. “Credit to him, taking care of business in the classroom. I know that Cal Poly has eyes on him, as well.”
They’ll be running interference for a group of running backs led by junior Anthony Villa (5-9, 175) and sophomore Isaac Burquez (5-11, 172). Junior Marcus Chan (5-10, 192), a first-team all-leaguer on defense, could also get the call at running back.
“He was used primarily as a defensive end, but Marcus is smart and he knows the backfield positions and is a fine athlete,” Crawford said. “Sam Kitt (5-11, 190, junior) and Gabe Martinez (5-10, 215, junior) also played a lot of fullback for us last year.”
Bishop’s coach is also receiving college inquiries about Sam Mikaele (6-4, 210), a first-team all-league receiver as a sophomore last year.
“Since colleges have had to do all their recruiting by remote, a lot of schools are asking to see his highlights,” Crawford said. “Sam is such a fine athlete, we’re counting on him big-time these next two years on both sides of the ball.
“He’s looking great, too. We may be moving him around a bit and putting him in spots where we can get him the ball more than we did last year.”
Other veteran receivers include senior Ben Ortiz (6-3, 224), who made second-team all-league as a tight end. Also back are the Boeddeker brothers — Ben, a 6-2 and 195-pound senior and Hunter, a 5-11 and 180-pound junior — as well as senior Kaio Tuttle (6-0, 160).
Crawford is also considering senior Lucas Dutcher (6-1, 180), a second-team all-league safety last year, as another target for Melgoza.
“He’s a smart kid who understands things and could really help us there, too,” he said. “We really feel we have depth at that position.”
That could also include junior Johnny Alvarado (5-10, 160), who transferred from Dos Pueblos last spring after making the All-Channel League second team as a free safety. He led the Chargers with four interceptions.
“He’s got great speed and instincts and catches the ball really well,” Crawford said. “He can run that jet sweep to the outside because of his quickness.”
It adds up to some high expectations at Bishop, which went just 5-6 during last year’s injury-wracked season.
“We’ve gone through two years with less than nine seniors each season,” Crawford said. “Last year was particularly tough because of how all the injuries forced us to shift so many players out of position.
“This year, we’ve got a lot of experienced guys returning, and I know they’re all really eager to get at it.”