As football teams at smaller schools approached the midway point of their regular seasons, players and coaches in classes 5A and 6A could only watch and wait their turn.
But the long wait ends this week, when all teams in the state are allowed to play their first game under the UIL coronavirus guidelines established in late July. The anticipation for the season provided a backdrop to a spirited scrimmage Friday at Chaparral Stadium between Westlake and Cedar Park, two state-ranked squads with state aspirations.
"I had some butterflies in my stomach, I’m not going to lie," said Westlake senior Michael Taaffe. "Getting those out and getting refreshed and getting back into it, it felt awesome."
In Taaffe’s last game, the cornerback earned defensive MVP honors in the Class 6A Division II state championship contest while helping Westlake shut out Denton Guyer 24-0 Dec. 21 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Friday’s scrimmage lacked such high stakes, and the number of fans fell about 40,000 short of the crowd that watched the Chaps win their second state title. But for Taaffe, his teammates and their Cedar Park opponents, the scrimmage held almost as much meaning as winning a title. For the past six months, the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools, ended sports and threatened the 2020 football season. To have a chance to strap on pads and prepare for the season held its own achievement.
"We’re here, we’ve worked for it, we took precautions (against the coronavirus), and here it is," Taaffe said. "I can’t wait."
Neither can Cedar Park quarterback Ryder Hernandez, a senior entering his third season as the Timberwolves’ starter behind center.
"It’s been crazy going through practice and seeing all the other teams playing, but we’re all excited to go," he said.
And has Hernandez had the chance to go and see any of the smaller schools in the Austin area play?
"Nah," he said. "We’ve been practicing those nights anyways."
For coaching lifers such as Cedar Park’s Carl Abseck and Westlake’s Todd Dodge, the change to their September routine has come with a silver lining.
"This weather is beautiful," said Abseck, referring to the 74 degrees and pleasant northern breeze that cooled off Chaparral Stadium Friday. "That’s one thing about getting delayed a little bit; it’s not 105 degrees. And honestly, I’ve enjoyed having a few Fridays with my family."
The UIL has allowed high school games to be broadcast on Fridays this season because of the coronavirus restrictions on crowd sizes at stadiums, and Dodge has taken advantage to catch as much football on TV as possible.
"I’m just like anyone else; I’ve been fiending to watch some football," he said. "I’ve been watching the games (on KBVO-TV), I’ve been watching high school games from across the country on ESPN. I almost started to go watch Lampasas and Wimberley the other night (Sept. 11), but then said ‘Well, I better not.’ I tell my team not to be around people you don’t need to be around, so I better follow that same advice."
Both Westlake and Cedar Park hope to be on TV in mid January, when the UIL has tentatively scheduled the state championship games for teams in classes 5A and 6A. The Chaps enter the year as the No. 1 Class 6A team in the American-Statesman’s preseason poll, while Cedar Park tops the Class 5A poll.
Westlake held Cedar Park to just one first down through the first two sets of plays at the scrimmage. In comparison, new Chap starting quarterback Cade Klubnik completed his first nine passes, including a 13-yard strike to Jaden Greathouse in the back corner of the end zone.
Cedar Park gradually found its groove on both sides of the ball as the scrimmage wore on. Hernandez had two touchdown passes in the Timberwolves’ third set of plays, and the Texas State baseball pledge sidearmed a nifty 2-yard scoring pass to Tristen Hervey in the timed scrimmage.
Klubnik, a junior four-star recruit being courted by schools across the country, capped the scrimmage by showing off his elite speed with a 66-yard touchdown dash through the heart of Cedar Park’s defense.
"The speed of the game is different, but we settled down a little bit," Abseck said about his team’s slow start. "It’s a scrimmage, so you don’t spend a lot of time game-planning like you normally would, and they’re a freaking good team that won state last year. We’re testing ourselves against one of the best, and that’s what it’s all about."
Cedar Park will open the season Friday at 7 p.m. against Leander school district rival Vandegrift at Monroe Stadium. Westlake’s reshuffled schedule now includes a home opener against Schertz-Clemens Friday at 7:30 p.m.