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COVID outbreak and injuries force Northern California high school to cancel football game

James Patrick/jpatrick@sacbee.com

Chris Carr took in the question, exhaled and sized it up in quick order.

The Esparto High School football coach was asked in general how the depleted Spartans of rural Yolo County are doing on a day in which there will be no game.

“Boy, howdy,” Carr said. “We’re surviving.”

Esparto is experiencing the plight of small-school football programs everywhere, where roster numbers are vital to even have a chance to run a practice, to learn the basics of blocking and tackling in a sport that requires both to compete. The Spartans are missing seven players due to injuries and six more as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak, leaving them with 13 able bodies.

The situation forced school officials to make a difficult call to Amador High to report the Spartans did not have enough players to play Friday night’s nonleague contest in Sutter Creek. The game was canceled. It might go down as a forfeit loss for Esparto if the teams cannot find a way to reschedule the game. Amador also feels the crunch as home games are a revenue generators in small towns that flock to such events.

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So, here’s Carr, a physical education instructor on campus, sizing up the challenge he faces. On a campus of 250, bodies are paramount in a sport dependent on it. The Esparto junior varsity program had to fold midway through last season due to low participation numbers. There is no JV program this season, but there is a youth feeder program with hopes of having a JV team next season.

Esparto is 0-3, a Division VII program at the smallest level offered in the state. The Spartans are grinding along after basking in a dream season last year, a nine-win playoff campaign with 35 players on the roster.

Esparto suffered a season-opening 50-13 loss to powerhouse Modesto Christian. Then the Spartans trailed another mighty small-town program in Le Grand of Merced County 39-0 at the half when Carr declared his thinning roster could not go on.

Referees at that game suggested Le Grand reserves suddenly play for the Esparto team in the second half to keep the game going. That wasn’t going to work, so the game was cut short. Last Friday, Esparto lost 41-19 at unbeaten Delta in Clarksburg, coached by a man in Tim Rapp who can speak to how vital it is to have roster numbers.

“We graduated 17 guys from a really good team last year, and we’re just so young and injured, but the guys have been great,” Carr said. “This is what we run into as a small school. I’m trying to schedule schools our size. We had Division I programs from Sacramento trying to schedule us, thinking we’re blowing smoke. ‘Guys, I’m not.’ But we’re fine. We’ll be ready to play next week. We’re keeping it together, hanging in there.”

The coach added: “Just a strange year. We had a player break his toe in PE in the pool. We lost six kids to injury in the Le Grand game. The kids are battling and I love their effort. Right now, we have 12 kids who either never played football or never on varsity, or haven’t played the sport in six years. It takes a special kid to play football and we have kids who care. I’m so proud of how they’ve fought, and all the kids are saying they can’t wait to get back and get after it. We just worry when the other shoe is going to drop.”

Practicing with 13 players

Teams with low roster numbers are limited in what they can do in practice. If there are 11 players on defense and 11 on offense, how does one run a practice with 13 total bodies? Or even 20?

“It’s hard to do tackling drills with low numbers, but our tackling needs to improve, but we can’t risk the injuries,” Carr said.

Esparto started 0-3 last season, including a forfeit against Woodland Christian due to injury and illness.

“We got healthy and went on a nine-game winning streak,” Carr said.

Esparto won the 2022 Sierra Delta League with a 5-0 record. Before Carr took over as head coach prior to the 2021 season, Esparto went five seasons without a league victory. Last season’s playoff march delighted the farming community of 3,100 with games selling out. Carr expects to have enough football bodies to host Winters on Sept. 15.

Part of a family

Carr got into teaching and coaching because of the lessons he learned from his mentors growing up in Sonoma County, where he played in the trenches at Montgomery High in Santa Rosa in the 2000s. He played at Santa Rosa Junior College and finished at Cal Lutheran in Southern California.

“My senior year of college, I blew out my foot and ankle,” Carr said. “I was all-conference the year before, but once I got hurt, not a single coach in the program called me to check on me. Just removed me from the roster. I spent a year bitter about the game, then my high school coach got me into coaching. I knew that I didn’t want anyone to feel what I went through. The kids we have now who are hurt, we tell them to stick around, to come to practice, to be part of a team, to be family.”

Hope for the future

Esparto does have a player with some star ability in Antonio Seastrunk, a 6-foot, 210-pounder who has rushed for 298 yards and three touchdowns in addition to playing defensive end/linebacker. He ran for 130 yards against Delta and went for 168 and two scores against Modesto Christian. He did not play against Le Grand due to injury.

“He’s a fine young man, a good player,” Carr said. “He’s battled injuries, too. He looked at transferring in the offseason, but he was committed to his team. Glad he’s here.”

Carr said he has a promising quarterback leader in sophomore Rodrigo Melendrez, who has played despite suffering a sore knee.

“Playing his tail off,” the coach said. “Give us a couple of years with all the freshmen and young kids we have, and boy, howdy, we can be something. They’re taking their lumps now, but we’ll be back.”