HIDALGO — The Hidalgo Pirates became one of the first Rio Grande Valley schools to return to courts and fields of play to resume fall sports practices in earnest since all Valley schools were forced to temporarily stop summer strength and conditioning workouts in early June as a response to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.

Despite being a reason for celebration for some, the Pirates’ first day back at practice began with a high degree of uncertainty, namely when it would begin.

Monty Stumbaugh, Hidalgo’s athletic director and head football coach, acknowledged he initially couldn’t say when his team would officially get to hit the practice field because administrators and coaches planned to first test all returning student-athletes for COVID-19.

Hidalgo football and then volleyball players took rapid-result swab tests, which yield results in 15 minutes, for the virus as a safety precaution before being allowed to enter the field or gym to begin practicing for the first time since early March.

Conducting those tests and awaiting results while maintaining social distancing measures, however, proved problematic when many returning student-athletes were being tested for the virus for the first time in weeks or months.

“That took forever, but we need to do that to make sure everyone was negative (for COVID-19) and start on a clean bill of health. We didn’t get to start until around 7 o’clock,” Stumbaugh said. “We’re blessed to be able to get to play. We need to make sure that we take advantage of that because there’s a lot of people not getting to.”

Testing began around 3:30 p.m. Monday for Hidalgo football and volleyball players with the process continuing past 7 p.m. before practices could officially commence. Hidalgo ISD also reported no positive COVID-19 test results among any of its student-athletes or coaches.

The Pirates football team got a late start to its first on-campus practice of the 2020 high school football campaign, while the Pirates volleyball program elected to wait until today to kick off its season-opening practice due to the time lost Monday testing returning student-athletes for coronavirus.

Stumbaugh said Hidalgo ISD plans to test all coaches and student-athletes at least once weekly moving forward with rapid-results COVID-19 tests before being allowed to return to competition or practices.

Coaches and student-athletes were also required to wear facemasks as part of the University Interscholastic League executive order handed down by Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and adhere to social distancing guidelines, but for many the return to practices presented a return to campus and some degree of normalcy.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been out there, but we understand that people are going to be watching to see what we’re doing, especially in the community,” Stumbaugh said. “We’re going to do everything we can to have the safest environment we can for our kids and coaches.”

“I mean at first, it was like what’s up (with this), but then again can’t get too close because we don’t want to risk passing COVID-19 to the whole team,” said Zach Carrera, Hidalgo’s senior running back and 2019 District 16-4A DI Offensive Player of the Year. “(The restrictions aren’t) that bad, but it’s just weird having something cover your mouth and nose the whole time. It’s not like last year when we could mess around with each other and have fun. Now it’s like get to practice, go straight to the field, then finish practice, change fast and then leave. Now, we’ve got to stay aware of who or what we get near on the practice field and off.”

Some Hidalgo student-athletes and coaches feel like they’re also having to play catch-up relative to other Texas high school athletic programs that got the go-ahead to resume play earlier.

The UIL bifurcated football district certification dates to accommodate areas considered COVID-19 hotspots, effectively putting Class 1A-4A teams on one timeline and Class 5A-6A squads on another.

The regular season for Class 1A-4A schools began Aug. 27 and will conclude Nov. 7, leaving the Pirates little time to play out their season, while the regular season for Class 5A-6A schools is scheduled to run from Sept. 24 until Dec. 5.

“The kids were ready. We had a pretty good practice, I thought, for the first day. We had a lot of enthusiasm,” Stumbaugh said. “You could tell who’s been working out and who hasn’t been, but our kids came in pretty good shape. You could tell they’ve been working, and I was real pleased with that. They did a good job of working out during all this time, and we had a pretty good first day.”

The first fall practice for the Pirates football squad wrapped up a little after 9 p.m. Monday under the bright lights of Bill Pate Stadium, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel after an extended period of uncertainty as to when or if they would flicker back on this fall.

“Everybody passed their (COVID) tests, which was a really big deal. Everyone took care of themselves. Now we have to stay clean the whole time,” Stumbaugh said. “Everyone came in healthy, we followed the protocols and told them what we need to do to hopefully continue to stay that way.”

“I’m grateful that they allowed our school to have a season and let us practice,” Carrera said. “It’s amazing being back with the boys and getting ready to face off (against) our other (Valley) schools and making a run to the playoffs during my last year of high school.”

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch