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Needles High School sits in a small desert town on California’s southeastern border. To face schools close in size and proximity, its athletic teams compete in nearby Nevada.
Thanks to COVID-19, the Mustangs’ football team has not played in either state this season.
Needles is one of many small-town high schools across the country missing their Friday night lights this fall. California and Nevada are among 13 states that canceled or postponed fall high-school sports seasons due to coronavirus concerns: The stark reality is there may be no football in those states until next school year, after the pandemic subsides.
Needles had state championship aspirations this year: Most Mustangs players were returning from last year’s squad, which reached the state semifinals. The team’s current seniors had no way of knowing then that they might have played their last game.
“These kids grew up practicing together,” said Adrian Chavez, whose son Jake is among those seniors. “They feel robbed. My heart breaks for ’em.”
Football, of course, is not the only high-school sport shut down due to the pandemic. But given football’s revered place in American culture, its absence is particularly noticeable in small towns at a time of year when high-school teams are typically gearing up for or competing in state playoffs—or, in some cases, traditional Thanksgiving Day games.
In towns like Needles (population 5,020), high-school football often represents the heartbeat of the community: Local residents—most of them alumni, many with multigenerational athletic ties to the school—turn out in droves for home games, strengthening their bonds with longtime friends and neighbors while cheering their team’s pursuit of gridiron glory.
When the team travels, especially during state playoffs, convoys of buses, SUVs, and other vehicles are sure to follow, even if the host schools are several hours away. And in larger states like Nevada, they often are.
Some small-town high schools whose states have put football on hold have seen players transfer out of state to play this fall. Some players fear going unnoticed by college recruiters; others just want normalcy. Needles High has lost athletes to schools a short drive away in neighboring Arizona, which started its fall season in October.
Needles may have a season yet: The Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association has wedged what would have been its fall season between its traditional winter season, which is scheduled to start in January—roughly a month later than usual—and its spring season, which is slated to begin in April.
Even if the football season does take place, it won’t be the same, especially since Nevada won’t have any state playoffs: Teams will play an abbreviated six-game schedule, with league playoffs at season’s end.
Still, towns like Needles look forward to football’s return—whenever that may be.
“Small communities like this, we’re itching for [the pandemic] to be over,” Adrian Chavez said. “We want our sports back. … It’s all our kids have got to do.”