It's a time-honored Thanksgiving Day tradition football players strive to partake in — practice.
If teams are practicing Thanksgiving week it's because they're preparing for the Sac-Joaquin Section playoff finals, and winning that game comes with a berth to the California Interscholastic Federation State Bowl Championships.
It's a bit more challenging now for teams to make it to the holiday, as it used to land in earlier rounds of the postseason before the section expanded the football schedule starting in 2016.
Either way, players and coaches have always embraced the chance to practice in the morning and pig out at night.
No prep program in the Manteca area is as familiar with this custom as Manteca High's football team having competed for SJS pennants three of the past four years and making deep postseasons runs for much of former coach Eris Reis' 16 years as head coach. Expectations have remained the same under successor Mark Varnum, who is in his third year.
“That's the goal, to be practicing right now,” Varnum said. “Last year, we practiced in the morning of Thanksgiving Day and got to be with our families the rest of the day. You know you're having a good season if you're practicing on Thanksgiving Day, and we are missing it this year.”
COVID-19 has obliterated the opportunity for athletes across the state. The pandemic forced the CIF to call off its annual state basketball championships in mid-March, then the rest of the spring sports season three weeks later.
The high school sports schedule has since been pushed back and modified to begin with the fall season in late December-early January, which appears less unlikely now with most counties in the most restrictive purple tier of the state's reopening plan.
“It's frustrating that no one is practicing right now,” Ripon football coach Chris Musseman said.
Musseman got to experience Thanksgiving Day practice as a coach for just the second time last year. He was an assistant under then head coach Chris Johnson when Ripon was preparing for juggernaut Central Catholic, an eventual state champ, on Thanksgiving Day of 2013.
“It's awesome,” Musseman said. “It's something that might be more (special) for the coaches than the kids because for us the goal every year is to have Thanksgiving practice. In my 20 years of coaching (it's his fifth as Ripon head coach) I've only got to do it twice.”
Manteca and Ripon both got to vie for section titles on the same day and the same venue last season, marking the end of a special Thanksgiving week for the families of the star quarterbacks on both teams. Nico Ilardi and Ripon won the Division V final at Sacramento City College just a few hours before first cousin Ryan Ward and the Buffaloes got to clutch a championship banner of their own in the Division III tilt.
Ripon's season extended well into December, culminating with an early holiday present shared with the rest of the community — the CIF State Division 4-AA crown.
“It was unbelievable playing football into mid-December,” Musseman said. “(The season) nearly took us into our holiday break, but getting to part of that and all the parades in town was just an awesome experience for the kids.”
Musseman remains good friends with his predecessor Johnson, a Ripon grad who had to cheer on his buddies and alma mater from afar. That's because Johnson had his own title game to prepare for as head coach for Sierra, which stunned Valley Oak League rival Oakdale for the Division IV title later that night in Stockton.
Sierra held two previous Thanksgiving Day practices, both with Jeff Harbison at the helm in 2009 and 2015. The Timberwolves' 2015 season did not wrap up until six days before Christmas when they completed their surprising run to the CIF State Division IV-A championship.
Thanksgiving is also a landmark date for cross country. Only the qualifiers for the state meet remain at this point, and the annual event takes place in Fresno the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Rick Cuevas had multiple reasons to celebrate Thanksgiving in 2019. The accomplished distance coach at East Union survived a brain aneurysm the week of Fourth of July that year, then led the Lancers to the SJS Division III varsity boys title. He oversaw the team's training on Thanksgiving morning and took off for Fresno shortly after. They went on to place sixth at state.
With most of the team returning, Cuevas and East Union aimed for a higher finish this season. They may still get their shot in the spring if high school sports get the go-ahead from state health officials.
For now, the CIF and SJS are awaiting updated youth and high school sports guidelines from the state as coronavirus cases continue to rise. High-contact sports such as football appear likely for another delayed start to their season if they happen at all.
Thanksgiving Day practices are not happening today, but there remains hope for the kids to play this academic year.
“The unknown is the hardest part,” Varnum said. “We're just focused on being as ready as possible. Our guys just want to play, they don't care when, who and where.”