Shortly after 6 p.m. Friday at South High, Chugiak Mustangs senior Josh Rolston placed a football in the tee and annihilated the game-opening kickoff into the far end zone for a touchback.
“It felt great,” Rolston said. “In that moment, I was able to feel like this was a normal season.”
In a time when almost nothing is normal, the significance of seeing the ball in the air in a sun-drenched sky couldn’t be ignored.
“I’m absolutely going to savor that moment and more,” said South Wolverines coach Walter Harmon, who watched his Division I defending state champions roll to a 42-0 victory over the Mustangs. “We were seconds away from not being here playing.”
Restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic delayed Anchorage School District sports till this week. Football teams are working with a five-game schedule and uncertainty whether a postseason will transpire.
Given that uncertainty, everything about the night — the opening kickoff and every play after it, the Week 1 Senior Night halftime ceremony, the socially responsible postgame fist-bump and elbow-bump line — meant something more than usual.
“All of this has so many meanings,” Harmon said. “Five guys on my staff, including myself, have seniors playing. The fact we got to celebrate them, play a game their senior year and come back to take a stab (at) possibly defending our state title in some way, shape or form is special.”
Temperature checks and health screenings were the first order of business for the limited number of spectators allowed. The bleachers were clearly marked with yellow-tape Xs signifying where and where not to sit.
With attendance limited by mitigation plans, some outside the stadium enjoyed a unique view of the action. In a scene reminiscent of Chicago’s Wrigleyville rooftops, about 10 people sat atop the large fence bordering the stadium’s south side that blocks some of the noise from nearby residences.
As for the game, there were heroics and hiccups.
South was dinged for 12 penalties and 134 yards, including 99 penalty yards in the opening half. Chugiak fumbled seven times and lost four to the Wolverines.
South senior quarterback Jackson Harmon passed for most of his 184 yards in the opening half and hit three different receivers for touchdowns — Quincy Heartwell-McKoy, Elijah Bowdon and Maddux Soland.
Heartwell-McKoy’s 56-yard grab to open the scoring with 1:08 remaining in the first quarter looked awfully similar to probably the most significant play during last season’s title run.
Less than 11 months ago in the state semifinals, Heartwell-McKoy floated past the West High defense as Harmon scrambled to his right. The two connected for a 36-yard touchdown in the closing seconds of the Wolverines' 21-14 victory over the Eagles.
On Friday, Harmon again scrambled and Heartwell-McKoy found the open space.
Heartwell-McKoy accounted for 97 receiving yards and 34 rushing yards before leaving the game in the second quarter with an apparent upper-body injury.
“He’s a dude that’s been fighting a few nagging injuries, but Quincy wanted to be out here with his team,” Walter Harmon said. “It was nice to see him get out here and kick off the season.”
The Wolverines ripped off 431 total offensive yards while holding Chugiak to minus-9. South’s defense was superb, including Cole Evanoff’s 42-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the third quarter.
Chugiak may have been outmatched but finished the game in the proper spirit. Colton Johnson’s 17-yard, fourth-quarter run was the Mustangs' longest play from scrimmage. After Rolston’s robust opening kickoff, his evening went on to include a booming 52-yard punt and game but unsuccessful field-goal attempts of 51 and 60 yards.
Seconds before Rolston’s 60-yard attempt one of the Chugiak coaches joked, “Let’s all take off our masks and blow to help that ball,” he said.
Harmon said the game gave his players a baseline from which to improve. He’ll happily continue to teach during the COVID climate, no matter what happens next.
“My whole story is about life lessons,” he said. "We are blessed, man. I’ve got friends across the country who are virtual-coaching and doing other things, not getting to play games.
“I told our kids we have to play hard for all of them, because it would shameful to not represent the sport well when we’re the ones who get to have a season.”
Or at least part of a season.
Matt Nevala co-hosts “The Sports Guys” radio show, Saturdays at 11 a.m. on KHAR AM 590 and FM 96.7 (@cbssports590). Find him on social media at @MNevala9.
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