Everyone around the Livermore High football program expected the fall of 2020 to be a season for the ages thanks to the Cowboys’ strong senior class, but the COVID-19 pandemic has put their dreams on hold.
Last week, the California Department of Public Health declared that no high school sports event or organized practice could start before Jan. 25, pushing the football season back even more.
Counties still need to get out of the purple tier, which includes widespread transmissions, and reach the orange tier to even have a football season.
Livermore senior quarterback Shaun Smith still holds out hope for a big finish in Cowboy country.
“We’re all really excited for this senior year, no matter what it is,” Smith said. “If we can get three games to eight games, we’re ready for anything.”
The Cowboys’ seniors have competed successfully together for the past 10 years, and everything was building to 2020-21. They went 9-1 on both their freshman and sophomore teams — losing only to De La Salle each season - and advanced to the 2019 North Coast Section Division II playoffs, with 17 or 18 junior starters and about eight other 11th-graders seeing ample playing time.
Thus, even after a tough loss to Campolindo 13 months ago in the playoffs, optimism reigned.
“They’ve been playing football together for a long time,” Livermore coach John Wade said. “They basically have earmarked this senior year as the one they’ve looked forward to the most, obviously, but they’re top to bottom one of the better groups I’ve been around.”
Optimism aside, Smith said it’s hard to sit there and accept what’s happening as the text messages and emails keep rolling in with updates from the California Interscholastic Federation and North Coast Section, and the debate over public safety continues across the state.
Smith says Livermore coaches are doing a great job keeping things organized. Players are wearing masks and social distancing during workouts.
“We just want to be on that field. We want to pad up and get out there,” Smith said. “But it’s really our of our control. There’s not a whole lot we can do except use this extra time to get better and be as ready as we can, so when we get the call to go play, it’s a no-brainer. We’re out there and we’re ready to go.”
Wade has been awed by the dedication and positive nature of his players during this difficult time. To him, it’s one of those groups where you just want to see how great they can be.
“You can tell, every once in a while, they’re anxious, but they just keep going and they keep coming and they keep working out, and we keep telling them that we really do think that we’re going to play - we just don’t know when, and we don’t know for how long,” Wade said. “They’re really taking it to a different level that I haven’t had with kids in a long time. It’s been really inspiring just to be around them and to see their attitudes. Regardless if we play, they’ve taught me a lot about staying the course and fighting through things. They’re a tremendous group of kids.”
Smith, a dual-threat dynamo, is filling out physically and now stands at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds. He recently received a visit from a coach from Division III Lewis and Clark College (Portland), which offered him a scholarship a couple months ago. He will soon have an official virtual visit with D-III Whittier College. Whittier offered him in July.
A big Seattle Seahawks fans — his dad was born and raised in Seattle — Smith models his playing style after Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, one of the shorter signal-callers in the NFL at 5-foot-11, in being able to escape the pocket and stay calm under pressure.
Smith showed his potential last season as a polished leader with speed and a strong arm.
“Last year, I was playing at about 5-foot-9 and 140 pounds, and I literally had to do everything I could to stay away from a lot of injury and getting the ball where I needed to be using my whole body, giving 100 percent,” Smith said. “I put on a lot of weight this offseason, so I’m excited to be able to see how I can compete at the varsity level being bigger and stronger and already having a whole year under my belt.”
Cowboys senior tight end Matt Polaski is up to 6-foot-4, 240 pounds and drawing comparisons to former Livermore stalwart tight end Brad Archer, now with Stanford.
“Matt Polaski, I believe, is 100% the best tight end in EBAL and probably one of the better ones in all of the Bay Area,’ Smith said. “I love that guy. He’s a big target (and) an end zone threat. He’s going to have a big year.”
Smith also pointed out middle linebacker Eli Nuddleman, who probably led the league in tackles, and his twin brother Ben Nuddleman, a ‘powerhouse’ at outside linebacker. Wideouts Tyler Martin and Dylan Prusso are very capable targets for Smith “I’ve got a lot of weapons to work with here,” Smith said.
Now the waiting game continues.
“COVID has been really messing with our season and the way we get to practice and stuff, but all the guys are still excited,” Smith said last week. “We know we’re going to play, we’re hopeful we’re going play, and we’re doing everything we can to get there.”