Grayson Wester

Grayson Wester, left, and Celina kick off the 2020 season Friday at Bobcat Field against former district rival Melissa.

Immersed in an offseason like no other, last week was a breath of fresh air for head coach Bill Elliott and the Celina football team as they took to Bobcat Field for a scrimmage against Decatur.

At 7:30 p.m. Friday, the Bobcats will get to enjoy the real thing — welcoming longtime rival Melissa for their 2020 season opener.

“It’s unreal. The excitement, you can just feel it with the kids and the community,” Elliott said. “Last week with the scrimmage, you could feel that excitement everywhere just from being out around each other and doing something and seeing our kids do things.

“It wasn’t too long ago when we thought we wouldn’t get to play or that we’d even have a season, so there’s a lot of excitement getting to do what we love to do. It’s a great feeling.”

That doubt wasn’t at all unfounded as the country continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states have moved their football seasons to the spring in 2021 while others have delayed their starts until later in the fall.

Friday’s kickoff between Celina and Melissa will go ahead as originally planned, marking the ninth consecutive season the two rivals have squared off. Fittingly enough, the Bobcats and Cardinals have split those previous eight meetings down the middle at 4-4.

“It’s the same for them as it is on us — you really don’t know a lot about what they’re going to do,” Elliott said. “You can have a feeling about it, but we’re a different team and we’re doing things different from how we did it last year because our offense is a bit different and our personnel is different. 

“Are they going to defend us similar to how they did last year when they tried to predominantly stop the run? I imagine there will be a lot of jockeying those first couple series between both of us, just trying to get a feel of what we each want to do.”

Both teams have been conducting practices since Aug. 3, with Elliott noting that Celina hasn’t had any illnesses surface related to the coronavirus during that time. The Bobcats have left no stone unturned in keeping facilities sanitized and masks worn during practices.

“The kids have done a great job. Ever since we started back on June 8 and with our conditioning camp in the summer, they’ve done a fantastic job of doing what we’re asking them to do,” Elliott said. “That’s the big thing I preach to them through this time is kind of submitting to what you’re being asked to do so we can do the things we want to do down the road.

“… I’ve been very proud of our staff and kids in doing the little things we have to do to try and maintain so we’re able to play.”

The Bobcats got to do so in something at least approximating a game-like environment last week when they scrimmaged Decatur. In addition to the exhibition, Celina’s booster club hosted the program’s annual barbecue scrimmage, feeding players on both teams as well as fans in attendance.

“It’s a neat atmosphere and was a lot of fun. We were able to get some good work in,” Elliott said. “We had been hitting each other for a couple weeks and practicing for three, so it was good to get an actual opponent out there to see where we’re at. We’re happy with what we saw and we feel about where we’re at on both sides of the ball.”

Elliott praised the strides made on defense, an experienced area for the program with seven returning starters. The coach highlighted the work done up front by the pass rush, which generated routine pressure on Decatur thanks to the efforts of senior Army Ellison and juniors Wyatt Stephens and William Pace. 

“They looked really good and like they were three or four weeks into the season,” Elliott said of his defense. “They had unbelievable pursuit to the ball and were playing with such great speed.”

The Bobcats hope that continues into Friday when they look to stymie a Melissa attack that graduated two of the area’s top playmakers at the 4A level in quarterback Brendon Lewis and running back Ja’Bray Young. 

“They’re doing the same things they’ve done. It’s really just personnel for them,” Elliott said. “They lost a phenomenal athlete at quarterback and he was a difference maker. They’ve lost some really good kids, including both their running backs. They’ll look different with their personnel, but they handled Gunter fairly well in their scrimmage the other day.”

Elliott added that Friday’s game will have plenty of eyeballs on it, noting that he had done more media this week than at any point in his time as head coach. The interest won’t stop there, however, as the state braces for the start of a high school football season like no other in recent memory.

“I think there’s a lot of excitement, not just in the community but all around the state because we’re getting to play,” Elliott said. “If everybody would do what they’re asked to do, then I think we’ll be OK. Just be patient, show some grace, have a little compassion and do what you’re asked to do. I think we’ll be OK if we do those things.

“There are going to be some pop-ups where people will get the virus. It’s going to happen just like when the flu would go around. We’ll have to eliminate those people out, but fortunately — knock on wood — we’ve been fortunate not to have any cases and hopefully we can maintain that.”

For continued news and coverage on the local sports scene, follow Matt Welch on Twitter.

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