PHARR — Even weeks away from a return to competition with no games to play, the rivalry between the PSJA High Bears and PSJA North Raiders remains undeniable.

PSJA High and North became the biggest Hidalgo County high schools to return to the practice fields so far and the county’s first Class 6A programs to do so.

The Bears and Raiders, always eager to get a leg up on one another, don’t know when they’ll meet each other on the gridiron yet this season, but Monday they jostled for the right to be the county’s first 6A team to return to football practice in earnest.

PSJA High won that title, getting out to the practice field in San Juan at the crack of dawn Monday morning.

“It was awesome and it was upbeat. The kids were excited, the coaches were excited and it was great to get back to football finally,” PSJA High athletic coordinator and head football coach Lupe Rodriguez said. “It’s very beneficial being one of the first ones because we’re able to get a head start and continue doing the things we do working in the morning and getting a fresh start. It was great.”

“It felt good to finally be back with the team,” PSJA High senior defensive back Isaac Espino said. “The only (major) difference was us having to wear masks for safety precautions, but that’s about it. We went through practice still pretty regularly.”

The Raiders made their return to full-fledged football practices as well late Monday afternoon, as both programs at PSJA High and North prepare for a high school football season in the Rio Grande Valley like none other.

PSJA North runing back Isaac Gonzalez (37 during the first day back on the practice field with helmets and shorts at PSJA North High school on Monday, Sept.28,2020 in Pharr. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | dlopez@themonitor.com

“It feels so much better to be back out here because I’ve put so much into football these past couple of years. I didn’t know what was going to happen with the delay, but now that we’re all back, we’re all ready to play and hopefully, nothing gets delayed and we’ll be able to play,” PSJA North junior running back Isaac Gonzalez said.

“All day I had butterflies knowing this was going to be the first day of practice,” Raiders senior linebacker Micah Lopez said. “All summer, all these guys and I have been putting in work on our own. Now we’re ready to show what we’re made of and what we’ve been up to all summer.”

The Bears and Raiders football and other fall sports programs benefited from off-site, rapid-result COVID-19 testing provided by PSJA ISD to student-athletes, who were each asked to come to practice with a mask, water jug and negative COVID-19 test to participate in practices this week.

Coaches feel like this arrangement helped prevent any delays while trying to test all their returning student-athletes in mass on the first day of official practices.

Coaches and players were divided into position groups scattered across different parts of the Raiders’ practice field to maintain the district’s social distancing guidelines, and everyone was subject to a temperature check and a brief QR code questionnaire before being allowed to enter the practice area.

“It’s played a big part in everything we’ve done up to today and we’re still implementing it today, as well,” Lopez said. “It’s a bit weird not being able to huddle or drink from the (water cooler). There’s a new button you have to click on to turn on the water, but other than that it’s just great to be back out here.”

PSJA High and PSJA North also got a leg up by being a pair of the very first Class 6A programs in Hidalgo County to hit the ground running with strength and conditioning workouts that resumed Sept. 21.

The focus for each program since has been building back up team chemistry and conditioning after months apart.

PSJA North varsity coach Kaufman directs his football squad during the first day back on the practice field with helmets and shorts at PSJA North High school on Monday, Sept.28,2020 in Pharr. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | dlopez@themonitor.com

“Even though we were still working out here and there, nothing beats this: working together at school,” PSJA North senior offensive tackle Ram Martinez said.

“I was very anxious and excited sitting at home knowing we were going to have practice and I was going to be able to get this baby back on,” he said, patting his helmet. “It’s a different feeling, but we know what has to be done for us to be able to have our season. We’re willing to do whatever it takes.”

Players and coaches at both PSJA High and PSJA North said they were excited to get to work preparing for a season in a competitive, top-heavy District 31-6A.

While both programs are still putting the final touches on their regular season schedules this week, the Bears and Raiders were both grateful for the opportunity to get started and eager to see each other again on the field.

“We’re normally able to go through spring training, through 7-on-7 in the summer, through summer strength and conditioning and we’ve been (mostly) idle since March,” Rodriguez said. “Given all the uncertainty, to be able to go out and get out there and do some football was awesome.”

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch