Coming home

After over a month on the road, football prepares for a homecoming

Jalen+Nutt+winds+up+for+a+deep+pass.+Nutt%27s+receiving+corps+will+get+a+big+boost+this+week+from+Will+Strachan%2C+who+is+slated+to+return+from+an+offseason+injury.

Paul Tubridy

Jalen Nutt winds up for a deep pass. Nutt’s receiving corps will get a big boost this week from Will Strachan, who is slated to return from an offseason injury.

Jackson Posey, Sports Editor

Two weeks ago, the Valley Ventana reported that football’s Oct. 16 matchup with New Braunfels was postponed due to coronavirus concerns. That postponement, paired with an interesting combination of early-season contests, left Ranger Stadium without a varsity home game for over a month.

That streak will, barring health concerns, come to a close Thursday at 7:00 p.m., in a rare midweek Homecoming game. The setup is strange, to be sure – the team has sole ownership of the stadium, so it isn’t a scheduling quirk. In fact, the game was originally scheduled for Friday before the teams’ coaches agreed to move it back.

The on-a-school-night Homecoming game may be unpopular among many students, but head coach Larry Hill sees the change as a necessary evil.

“We’ve been practicing since June,” Hill said. “We tried to schedule in some time off to recharge batteries, while practicing enough to keep sharp. When the New Braunfels game went south, our open week went away. 

“I felt like, we’ve gotta continue to practice at a high level, but I’ve gotta give our kids a little bit of time off. We gotta have a little mental, mental as much as physical, recharge time. How’s that gonna happen? So, we pulled the South San game back to a Thursday, we pulled the New Braunfels reschedule back to a Thursday, and we have scheduled in some Saturdays off that they don’t normally get, we’re going to have three or four in a row. And that’s probably the best we can do.”

The change is a bold move: South San, who has yet to play a game due to strict COVID-19 restrictions in South San ISD, has been preparing for this game since they first saw their schedule. Meanwhile, the Rangers have self-imposed a short week, in the hopes of more rest in the future.

“Yeah, that’s a little bit of an eyebrow raiser,” Hill said. “We’re playing a home game in a stadium that we share with no one. We don’t have to do occasional Saturdays and Thursdays, [but] we purposely went on Thursday. Now, like I told our players, that puts a little onus on you. I’m betting on you. I’m betting that you could prepare in a short week and still be ready to play. And if we can, and then have a long weekend, we can recharge our batteries a little bit. So that’s the thinking behind both this week and next week.”

That time off is critically important, especially in a school year made even more difficult by the coronavirus. 

“It’s a grind,” Hill said. “People don’t realize it. They go to the game and it’s fun and it’s exciting. [But] we have 10,000 empty seats when we practice at 6:30 in the morning, we have 10,000 empty seats where we grind again, midday. There’s no one sitting in on their afternoon position meetings and weight room sessions and conditioning sessions. There’s no one here Saturday morning when they come up for two hours and lift and run and watch tape. No one’s in the training room while they’re rehabbing their injuries. No one’s consoling anybody when somebody goes on social media and badmouths a 17-year-old kid. 

“So, sometimes all you have is each other. And it can be a grind. You got schoolwork, you got family stuff, you got a relationship. But at the same time, we can back off, we can do less of that … but we may not like the result.”

Further respite will come in the form of receiver Will Strachan, who was cleared Wednesday morning after a preseason wrist injury cost him every inter-squad competition to date. His injury was one of many – four of nine receivers were out last week, including starters Garrett Brooks and Kyler Clarke – but his return could be one of a kind.

Strachan’s football talents initially flew under the radar, as his high school career began as a quarterback on the Freshman B team. As a sophomore, he moved up to JV White, essentially the junior varsity equivalent of a B team. And then, after backing up then-quarterback Luke Gombert, he ceded his longtime position to former cornerback Jalen Nutt and set out to man the outside. All of a sudden, he took off.

“Nobody was performing at any higher level at their position than Will was in two-a-days,” Hill said. “Now, he never made it to the … scrimmage. So we really don’t have any Friday night proof that he’s gonna play at a high level, but there was every indication in the preseason that he was going to be one of our guys. 

“How long does it take him to get up to jet speed? I’m not sure, but if nothing else, I think our guys were energized by, here’s a guy that had a devastating injury, freak injury, and is back, and he’s back ahead of schedule. And, he brings a mindset to our team, as well as what he can do at the receiver position. So we’re excited to have him back.”

Although it may take a while for that jet plane to take off, the runway is just a step from cruising altitude. And adding another playmaker to this already-potent offense can cause nothing but problems for opposing defensive coordinators.

Perhaps the chief benefit of this week’s game, even more so than minor schedule adjustments, is simply getting to play a home game – the team has been on the road since Sept. 25, their season-opening match. Not to mention, this game won’t be broadcast on TV, which will push the start time up to 7:00 p.m. for the first time this season (and eliminate 12-15 TV timeouts throughout the game). So, thanks to a game that could feasibly end an hour earlier than any other game this season, the players are in line to literally get more rest at night.

Around the horn, the offensive line will feature the same set of starters in consecutive games for the first time this season, representative of a startling lack of continuity forced by injury issues. Against Clemens, this unit paved the way for a backfield which ran for 241 yards and five touchdowns, a showing which earned quarterback Jalen Nutt a spot on the San Antonio Preps Honor Roll.

This game may not be the most competitive the team has played this season. But it’s important for a bevy of other reasons, from rest to players returning from injury to continuity in the trenches. Most importantly, though, the Rangers are coming home for Homecoming. It will be a bittersweet celebration, as limited capacity and the lack of a Homecoming dance put a damper on the festivities, but it will be a celebration nonetheless. 

The teams are set to face off Thursday at 7:00 p.m. at Ranger Stadium, with limited capacity. The game will be streamed live on Rangers Network.