SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - High school athletes are ready to return to competition, but many up and down the coast are still waiting for local public health departments to give them the green light to do so.
Cross country was the first local sport to return to inter-school competition after an 11-month wait finally ended last week. But COVID-19 cases have not yet subsided enough for health officials to clear sports like football to kick off once again.
It's been an arduous wait for several student-athletes, including Bishop Diego varsity running back and defensive lineman Anthony Villa.
“It’s just been a big change,” said Villa, who also plays basketball. “Very stressful, because it’s been a lot to handle."
The pandemic has not only put his junior season in jeopardy, but has disrupted his dream of playing in college.
“I was hoping to show people what I can really do, and get the scouts coming out here and hopefully get a good highlight tape for this year, really show people what I can do,” Villa said. “But sadly, since we haven’t been able to play I haven’t been able to do any of that.”
Villa says he is still talking to college coaches and training for the chance to play again this school year.
The Cardinals have stayed together through it all and have even had some sporadic practice time, though that is currently on hold.
Some local athletes have taken big steps just to be able to play through the pandemic. Villa says a close friend moved to Iowa to be able to play high school football.
When asked if he ever considered the idea of moving out of state to be able to play, he said "definitely, it crossed my mind."
"But sadly, I'm not in the position where I can do that," he explained. "I know it may sound crazy to some people but it's part of me. I've been playing since I was like seven years old."
Villa credits his family and friends for helping him stay hopeful. He has also picked up new hobbies like golf, hiking and going on runs with his dog.
“It’s definitely meant a lot, you know, knowing that other people are going through the same thing,” he said. “Knowing that I have a support group that I can go out to and talk about and they can relate and help me.”
Even through having a big piece of his identity taken away, Villa is among the many athletes showing resilience.
“I definitely have my overwhelming moments,” he said. ”But I try to be motivated. I try to stay on the positive side of things. And I try to keep moving through all this lockdown and everything. I try to keep progressing and doing me. And not let it change too much of my routine or anything like that.”
Football, along with sports like soccer, volleyball and water polo, can return when Santa Barbara County reaches the orange tier of the state's reopening plan.
The county would need to reach fewer than four new daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over a seven day stretch. That number has been trending in the mid-30s this week.
The California Interscholastic Federation is targeting April 17 as the end date for a potential football season.