Ben Partee and Josh Brown were packing their bags for a cross-country trip when the news hit.
The recent San Marcos High graduates and scholarship recipients at Gannon University in Erie, Pa., learned five days before they left that their freshman football season had been pushed back.
The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference made its decision to suspend all fall sports competition through the fall semester on July 15. Nonetheless, the quarterback-receiver duo decided to leave The American Riviera for Erie to continue training and working out with their new team.
Brown told the News-Press by phone he never really considered not heading east.
“I was always all in,” he said. “You know, it’s free school so you can’t really complain. I didn’t ever see a reason in staying back and taking online classes at City College when I could come here for free and practice and get better. It’s the same with Ben too. We had a talk together and we said, ‘There’s absolutely zero reason not to come out here.’”
Gannon is set to begin its fall semester on Aug. 10 with in-person instruction, though some classes will operate under a hybrid model.
“All the students are living on campus, classes are in person, so there was really no hesitation for us, or no reason for us not to go,” Partee explained.
Brown added that even if classes were online they would want to get acclimated to their new teammates and campus.
The Golden Knights have continued to hold voluntary, non-padded practices in lieu of the traditional preseason camp. There is no set date when padded practices would resume. This has meant more time for Partee and Brown to improve what was already a dynamic chemistry.
Brown had 73 receptions for 1,173 yards and 17 touchdowns last season for San Marcos, while Partee passed for 2,210 yards and completed 20 touchdown passes. Both set new school records.
Through 7-on-7 passing drills and skill training, Partee and Brown have been able to work with their coaches and learn from their teammates.
The team will have a six-day per week schedule until classes begin, starting with a 6 a.m. wake up call and breakfast. The team conducts weight lifting three days a week and uses the remaining days for football training and drills. All team activities, and campus activities, have required students to wear masks nearly 100% of the time.
The only time Partee and Brown haven’t had a face covering has been performing reps in the weight room. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the students are required to have a temperature check and answer questions on a mobile app called “Live Safe,” for daily wellness checks. Once completed, the students receive a green check and are able to pick up lunch, enter dorms or other campus buildings.
“You get your green check on the app, you wear your mask and get your temperature taken and then you’re good to go for the day,” Partee said.
Brown and Partee have been tested for COVID-19 three times since moving to campus, all coming back negative. The team has not reported any positive COVID-19 cases, they said.
Both are looking forward to their fellow freshmen moving in Monday as they begin freshmen week of welcome.
“We’re not necessarily sure what that’s going to look like because of COVID, but I’m guessing there will be activities within our dorms and kind of ice-breaker things,” Partee said.
Partee will be taking part in Gannon’s five-year dual program with its business and engineering schools, pursuing his masters in business with a bachelors in mechanical engineering. He was San Marcos’ Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year with a grade-point average of 4.8. Brown is majoring in business while also taking sports science courses.
Making the leap from San Marcos to a Div. II football program is no easy task, but the duo is hopeful their summer training will pay dividends. Partee has been able to work with “Throw To Win QB Coach” Sam Fisher, while Brown has added 10 lbs of weight and muscle. They both credit San Marcos coach Jason Fowle and the Royals staff for helping them with the transition.
“Coach Fowle definitely prepared us super, super well for getting into college and being able to understand and learn these playbooks and these concepts,” Brown said. “It’s just little tweaks here and there, a lot more formations.”
Partee added, “We’re grateful that we had coach Fowle. He really prepared us well, as well as the rest of the coaching staff at San Marcos.”
Trading in their surfboards for snowshoes has seemed crazy to some Santa Barbarans, they admitted, but the two have made the most of the recent move.
They’ve visited Presque Isle State Beach and been able to walk in the white sand, gone golfing and rented jet skis.
”It’s not like, ‘oh it’s Pennsylvania,’ there’s nothing there and no mountains,” Brown said. “We’re in the middle of downtown Erie by the lake with plenty to do.”
‘I’ve got some unfinished business’
While some Division I commits have elected to sit out the upcoming high school football season, that will not be the case for Santa Barbara High’s Deacon Hill.
Hill, who committed to play football at the University of Wisconsin as part of the Badger’s 2021 recruiting class in advance of his junior campaign a season ago, told the News-Press unequivocally he will be suiting up for the olive and gold once the season starts in the winter.
“I’m not leaving. I’ve got some unfinished business left here,” said Hill. “As soon as I heard we were having a season, I knew I was staying. As soon as the word came out.
“I grew up with these boys and we dreamt about playing as seniors and finishing high school together, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
Hill, who shared the Channel League Co-MVP award with teammate Noach Wood in 2019, led the Golden Tornado (11-3, 5-0) to their first outright league championship since 2001. He threw for more than 2,000 yards and had 22 touchdown passes in the regular season. He led Santa Barbara to the CIF-SS Div. 8 final against Sunny Hills, though he threw an interception in the end zone with 19 seconds remaining as the Lancers won the title 24-21.
Hill admitted the ending to last season played a factor in his decision.
“Yeah, I mean I don’t want my last high school play to be an interception,” he said.
Last week, the California Interscholastic Federation announced a 10-week regular season for football beginning Friday, Jan. 8 and ending March 12, with an additional four weeks for playoffs. Teams can begin practicing on Dec. 14.
Hill said he has been in communication with his teammates and making sure they are working out on their own while many fitness facilities remain closed.
“I’m looking forward to playing my last year with my best friends, because not a lot of them are going to play the game again… just having those senior moments, that’s going to be the best part,” he said.
During the quarantine, Hill slimmed down roughly 20 pounds and hopes to play at around 220 when the season begins. His playing weight last season was around 240 to 245, he said.
“A big change in diet,” said Hill. “I’ve been able to focus on what I’m eating, focus on working out. I work out two or three times a day just making sure I can get my body right for this final season. Especially since we lose so many guys, I’m going to have to do a lot more and make plays.”
On July 21, Hill took to Twitter to announce he had received a scholarship offer from UCLA. Having his three older sisters attend the school to play water polo made it a special moment for Hill, though he said he remains committed to the Badgers.
“It’s still ‘On, Wisconsin!’” Hill stated, in reference to the university’s fight song.
“My family has always been a part of (UCLA), so the main reason for me posting it was just to really thank them for taking the time to recruit me and look me over and end up offering me that scholarship,” he explained. “That’s really nothing to take for granted. I just wanted to show them appreciation.”