San Mateo Serra is coming to town to play Santa Ana Mater Dei on Saturday night in the CIF Open Division state championship bowl game at Saddleback College.
Everyone should give coach Patrick Walsh a standing ovation. He was influential last January in making sure state politicians, education leaders and health officials understood that high school sports could resume safely after being shut down since March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There was a spring football season solely because of Walsh and a few others who refused to be turned away by those in positions of power.
"I was equally worried about the fall of 2021," Walsh said. "If we didn't do anything, who knows what would have happened."
It's hard not to forget how bleak things looked in December 2020. High school sports were on hold in California, with no indication when they might be restarted. Walsh was part of a group of football coaches unwilling to settle for the status quo that left high school sports out of the equation while college and pro sports competitions were taking place.
"My bleakest days were July and August of 2020," he said. "I was experiencing depression and anxiety, which led to panic attacks."
A friend who had a house in Hawaii invited him and his family to take time off around Thanksgiving.
"It was there I said, 'If we don't do anything, we're not going to be playing in the fall of 2021,'" he said. "My business was gone. My purpose was gone. Literally, I was not fighting. I was very lost. That Hawaii trip and praying and looking out to the ocean and asking for help, my spirit finally came around. I have to do something or I'm going to die. Sometimes the best things happen when human spirits are in the darkest pits."
Walsh and others put together research from states that were safely playing high school football during the pandemic. They turned to parents to lobby their local politicians. They united players across the state to let everyone know how much they were hurting emotionally and needed a return to normalcy.
"It's crazy how it has come full circle," Walsh said. "This game is as much for the 2020 team as it is for the 2021 team. We fought so hard to get football here and prove it to be a safe endeavor."
The reward, of course, is to play 11-0 Mater Dei, the consensus No. 1 team in the nation. The Monarchs' offensive and defensive lines are outstanding. Their secondary doesn't give up long touchdowns. Their quarterback is 15-0 as a high school starter. Their receivers don't drop passes. Their running back makes teams pay for missed tackles. Their kicker doesn't miss field goals and sends almost every kickoff for a touchback. Are there any weaknesses?
" 'Rudy,' 'Rocky IV,' 'Hoosiers,' 'Gladiator' — we're going to do an all-star film of underdog speeches and give the Monarchs our best shot," he said.
Serra is the the alma mater of Tom Brady, so maybe he has one game of eligibility left?
"That would be helpful," Walsh said.
Serra is 11-1 and its coach has already pulled off the biggest upset of all, getting high school sports to return in the middle of a pandemic, so never say never when dealing with Patrick Walsh.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.