Happy to be back — North Kitsap sophomore EJ Vailolo goes for the ball in a drill during this week’s football practice. The Vikings’ first game is Sept. 3. (Mark Krulish/North Kitsap Herald photos)

Happy to be back — North Kitsap sophomore EJ Vailolo goes for the ball in a drill during this week’s football practice. The Vikings’ first game is Sept. 3. (Mark Krulish/North Kitsap Herald photos)

Fall athletes glad to be back where they belong

Last fall, high school fields across Washington were empty as COVID-19 restrictions kept athletes away from their schools and their teammates until February.

The late-August weather has been great, providing the perfect backdrop for the return of fall sports to the season to which they rightly belong. Players are reporting with vigor and a renewed energy as they return to somewhat of a sense of normalcy.

As practices opened this week, the players and the coaching staffs have been hurriedly preparing for Opening Night. For most football teams, that’s Sept. 3; and for the rest of the fall sports, it’s the following week.

“I can’t wait for the first game,” North Kitsap senior quarterback Colton Bower said. “All that adrenaline that’s been built up. It’s going to be fun.”

Football began Aug. 18 and local programs took full advantage, getting out on Day 1, thrilled to be back on the field in mid-August, as opposed to the cold, rainy February, when the 2021 spring football season began.

Some teams have reported pretty high turnouts. Bainbridge’s football team had nearly 70 kids signed up, including a freshman class of 24, far greater than in recent years.

Right behind them are the girls soccer, volleyball, cross country, girls swim, boys tennis and possibly golf, depending on the league. Most teams were in tryouts in the beginning of this week, with the pool of players divided up for formal practices typically by Thursday or Friday.

This fall also gives some younger players a chance to experience a true fall preseason experience for the first time.

That’s the case for Jordan Lee, a South Kitsap 10th-grader who figures to be a key player on a very young Wolves football team.

During the shortened spring football season, South Kitsap split its program into two or three teams and often kept them separate, in pods, working in the various corners and ends of the field. It’s a much different feel than a standard fall preseason, in which the varsity, JV and C teams have the chance to be on the same field, work with and interact with one another.

So while it’s not unusual for a sophomore to be a new face on the varsity, this year is Lee’s first chance to do his part to help build the team’s culture and play a full season against South Kitsap’s normal gridiron foes.

“I was really excited for this year to come,” Lee said. “To have an actual season, the right amount of games, the same people together [at practice].”

For the graduating classes of 2022, well, they’re the fortunate ones. Unless things change, their senior season will be a full one, completely with, hopefully, district, regional and state postseason appearances. Although last year’s seniors were happy to be able to compete at all because of COVID numbers falling and vaccinations available, it certainly wasn’t the same.

Axel Gibson, a senior two-way lineman for the Bainbridge football team, saw a big senior class graduate from the team, which missed out on some of the fun and fanfare that typically accompanies the senior season.

“That’s your big year,” Gibson said. “You’ve been waiting three years to be your best, you are your best, and most kids aren’t going to play football again. That’s the sad reality.”

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