Johnny Kokoska remembers vividly when he learned that he and the rest of the Hermon High School football team would have to wait to play its first game this season.
COVID-19 had infiltrated the team, and its scheduled trip to Cape Elizabeth had to be canceled.
“I was disappointed,” said Kokoska, the Hawks’ junior quarterback and safety.
Little did Kokoska and his teammates know just how long it would be before Hermon would get to practice together again, let alone play a game.
That wait to face another opponent turned out to be three weeks before the Hawks became the last of the state’s 76 high school football teams to make its 2021 debut. The team did just that Saturday with a 19-12 Class C North victory at Nokomis of Newport.
“It was great,” said Kokoska, whose 75-yard touchdown pass to freshman Bud Coulter with 2:47 left in the game snapped a 12-12 tie. “All that energy and fire came back like it never left.”
The unplanned hiatus that preceded the Week 4 opener was tough to take for players and coaches alike.
“It’s been highly odd,” Hermon head coach Kyle Gallant said. “I never thought I’d be a football coach in the state of Maine in the middle of the season and not be coaching.”
Hermon originally was sidelined after more than half of the 42-player roster was quarantined due to COVID-19, leaving the active roster with fewer than 20 players, mostly freshmen.
“At that point it’s a safety issue,” Gallant said.
That left the Hawks unable to play their first two games, and a Sept. 9 decision to switch to remote learning at Hermon’s high school and middle school until Sept. 20 prompted cancellation of the team’s Week 3 game against Belfast.
“It was tough,” Kokoska said. “There was nothing to do, no football for three weeks.”
Gallant and his staff sought to keep his players engaged in the sport via Zoom meetings, virtual film sessions and group messaging, as well as at-home workouts.
“I watched a lot of film,” said Alec Smith, a sophomore fullback and linebacker/nose guard. “My sister and her boyfriend go to a gym every day and I headed out with them and worked out every single day for about two hours a day. But it still wasn’t the same.”
Gallant suspects many of his players may not have been as true to the at-home physical workouts as they would have been under the in-person eyes of the coaching staff.
“I was 16 once, so I’m not going to be a hypocrite about that,” he said. “If I got an at-home workout I’m sure I probably wasn’t doing it, so you do what you’ve got to do and hope and trust that the kids are doing it.
Gallant had players post pictures of themselves working out on a team app, which he said a lot of them did.
“[The game] showed the kids that were lying and the kids that were telling the truth.”
The return to team workouts last Monday revealed an emotion that transcended the typical weekly pursuit of football excellence.
“You should have seen the practice right after we got back,” Smith said. “You know for a fact that everybody missed football because the next practice that we had after that three-week break, everyone was screaming as loud as they could.”
By game time, the emotions remained high but the lost conditioning due to quarantine made football somewhat of a mind-over-matter experience as Hermon battled a Nokomis team in search of its second straight victory.
“Three weeks off doesn’t help,” Kokoska said. “I was pretty tired. We all were.”
Hermon led 6-0 at halftime, then the teams traded touchdowns throughout the second half until Kokoska found Coulter open behind a defender deep down the field for the game-winning touchdown. A pass interception by Gary Glidden with 40.4 seconds left thwarted Nokomis’ final comeback bid.
“I didn’t see anyone on [Coulter] in the slot, so I was going to put it on a bullet,” said Kokoska of the late-game touchdown pass. “I saw someone slide over toward him but I knew he could outrun him so I tossed it up and had confidence that he’d go get it.”
Kokoska finished the game completing 6 of 13 passes for 185 yards and three touchdowns, including additional scoring passes to Chasen Flanders and Clark Pelletier. Glidden rushed for 84 yards and caught two passes for 43 yards.
Pelletier had two interceptions on defense for Hermon, while Smith had a team-high 12 tackles along with a quarterback sack.
Hermon is scheduled to host its homecoming game against Medomak Valley of Waldoboro on Friday night.
“They were excited to be back and it showed [Saturday],” Gallant said. “The guys were gassed but they just said we’re going to take punches and we’re going to punch back. It was a great battle.”