“Look at him. He could do anything he wants. I’m the one that has him sticking to kicking because I don’t want to take the chance of getting him hurt,” St. James coach Robert Valdez said, referring to Alec Mahler as the all-state kicker and punter was throwing with the quarterbacks at Tuesday’s practice.
“They all want me to play something else, but I’m just kind of sticking to kicking and punting,” said Mahler.
Valdez then quickly jumped in.
“I’m the one that wants him to stick to kicking. He wants to do everything else,” the St. James coach said.
Now a junior, Mahler has perfected the kicking game since the eighth grade. His ability to throw the ball some is a sign of the versatility of the Wildcats.
That versatility was never at such a premium as it is now. With the advent of the coronavirus, the Wildcats, like all other teams around the nation, are having to deal with putting together workouts on the fly as timetables for how teams can practice and when the season might start, continued to be a moving target.
The Wildcats are in their second week of official fall practice. The first few days of practice, teams could put on helmets and shoulder pads although no contact is allowed with the state in Phase Two of COVID-19 safety protocols.
Although they were not in shoulder pads Tuesday, the Wildcats ran through a few situations that had the look of actual football practice compared to summer workouts that were limited to weightlifting and conditioning with a social distancing setting.
“With our practice schedule, we start with situations,” Valdez explained. “The situation (Tuesday) was offensively, going in from the 5 (yard line), five plays. Then defensively, stopping the other team from the 20.”
“We don’t have the pads on,” Valdez continued. “To me, it doesn’t make sense to put the pads on since you are not going to play until October 8 (at the earliest)- and it’s hot as hell. I don’t want my guys worn out. I believe we have time for that, and it just lends itself to the teaching component we are trying to do.”
With one group of students on campus only Mondays and Wednesdays, another group only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus some that are going the all-virtual learning route, just getting all the players together in time for practice poses a challenge.
“When the kids are in school and the bell rings, that group has to report to the field house to me and we kind of hold them and keep them socially distanced and all that,” Valdez said. “At 2:55, the kids that didn’t come to school that day or the kids that were virtual, they have to report to a classroom with their position coaches. That way we keep our numbers under control.
“We have team meetings from 3-3:30. That gives us time to do our wellness check. We go through temperatures and our CDC questions we ask our kids every day. Then we come out at 3:45, which is our pre-practice period and then at 4 p.m., we start practice.”
While the Wildcats were without pads and contact not allowed, at least practices taken on a bit more of a true football feel.
“It helps us get our technique down and learn the offense and defense so we can focus on the little things. It feels a lot more like football. We are actually out here learning plays,” said all-state linebacker Kaleb Brown.
“It’s an opportunity to get better at the game mentally and physically, and for the younger guys to get better,” said Keshawn Coleman, a senior safety.
The start of football season has been pushed back and there is an uncertainly as to when games may be played. That can make motivation an issue.
“During practice, everything is fine,” said Mahler. “Sometimes at the end, we will do some ab (exercises) or something and that’s when everybody starts to get all mad because technically, it’s not the summer, but we have to do what the coach says.”
The delayed start also means it will be a bit longer before the Wildcats can begin defense of their Class 3A state title.
“We want to get back to playing,” Valdez said. “For us, 2019 was a special year, but it’s over. This is a new group. I understand all of the safety standards. I am totally in favor of doing whatever it takes to provide a safe environment for our players, our coaches, their families and everybody. I would like for us to move football to the spring just to give us time to find medicine and vaccines and things that can help us battle this enemy that has no face.
“I know my guys. I know when the time comes that we can line up and play, we will be ready.”
Brown figures to be one of those guys.
“We have to work way harder than we did last year because we have a bullseye on our backs. We have to play way harder, way faster and get better,” Brown said.