The setting is not quite right.

Yes, the Alamo Heights Mules varsity football team is working out on an early August morning. Players are running drills grouped with teammates who play similar positions. A few are taking breaks, clearly exhausted, and are being tended to. The coaches, led by Ron Rittimann, are offering instruction and motivation.   

But on this day they aren’t at Alamo Heights High School. Instead, they are at Alamo Heights Junior School, forced to practice there because their regular venue, Orem Stadium, is still being renovated. This is not where you’d expect to see high school athletes from a regionally respected program prepare for the season.

It’s not normal, but it’s a lot closer to normal than the team was 12 months ago.

In August 2020, there was no football activity for Alamo Heights. At least not in person. Extracurricular activities like football were suspended in Bexar County due to a surge in coronavirus cases. It was only the latest turn in a pandemic that ended athletes’ seasons, scrambled game schedules, and forced coaches and administrators to adjust on the fly.

At Alamo Heights, the situation was complicated both by the hiring of Rittimann as head coach and athletic director just before schools shifted to online instruction in spring 2020 and the stadium renovation. 

But the revamped stadium will be the site of a welcome return Friday night when the Mules open their season against Boerne High School. For both players and coaches, it’s been quite an odyssey.

“We’re pumped, and we’re ready,” said senior linebacker Roan Erwin. “We know when we’re going to start, and we’re excited to play Boerne that first week.”

A new hire at an unsettled time

In early March 2020, Alamo Heights High had just hired Rittimann as its new football coach, but he hadn’t been formally released from his job at Claudia Taylor Johnson High School yet, so he attended events at Alamo Heights after fulfilling his day’s work at the North East Independent School District campus. 

“I was able to go catch a baseball game, a basketball playoff game, a couple of soccer matches, a track meet, and a softball game, so it was a busy first week,” he said of his new job.

Alamo Heights head football coach Ron Rittimann speaks with his team following a practice at Harry B. Orem stadium on Thursday.
Alamo Heights head football coach Ron Rittimann speaks with his team following a practice at Harry B. Orem Stadium on Thursday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

By the time Rittimann’s release was final on March 23, the job had changed dramatically as the coronavirus pandemic became a reality. On March 12, 2020, the University Interscholastic League shut down the state basketball tournament after just four of its scheduled 18 games were played. The next day, the UIL ordered all activities stopped.

School campuses closed, and Rittimann’s introduction to his players and staff occurred over Zoom videoconferences.

“I was just sitting in the office at my house and on the screen was 130, 140 athletes and coaches, and that’s where we met every day,” Rittimann said. “We talked about [the] vision of what it would look like going forward if we ever got back to going on campus, and that’s how we did it every day.”

The lack of face-to-face interaction made it difficult for the new coach to determine whether he was succeeding in building the trust that’s necessary for a winning team. Instead of looking into his players eyes’ and making a connection, he was seeing “a bunch of little squares” on a screen.  

A new coaching staff meant new systems to play offense and defense, and remote learning made this as challenging as any class, if not more so. For Erwin, “we just had to learn to take mental reps and put it in action when the season started.”

Said Rittimann: “They were open to a new coach coming in, and when we finally did get back on campus and start working … man, they just rolled up their sleeves and went to work. So I really respect what they did.”

‘Behind the curve’

In spring 2020, some of Rittimann’s players also were dealing with the loss of other sports they participated in; for competitions, athletic and otherwise, the 2019-2020 school year was over. 

Along with losing out on spring football practice in 2020, Erwin missed out on a promising tennis season. 

“We have a fall [tennis] season, which is a team season, and an individual season in the spring. In our fall season, we made it to the finals of the state, and so we wanted to do something in the individual season,” he said. “Unfortunately, it just didn’t go our way.”

George Flesher, a running back who’s now a senior, lost his junior-year track and lacrosse seasons. “We were looking to have a good lacrosse team, then everything shut down,” he said.

Football practices briefly resumed over the summer, with safety protocols in place, but shut down again amid a COVID-19 spike. When the team started practicing again in September 2020, there were still challenges, mainly finding a place to practice while the stadium was being renovated. At one point, the Mules took to the street, setting cones out to make sure cars would stay clear while players did drills. At other times, they would work out in a gym, adjusting schedules around other sports’ practices.

A COVID-19-themed sign covers a wall leading to the football field at Harry B. Orem stadium on Thursday.
A COVID-19-themed sign covers a wall leading to the football field at Harry B. Orem Stadium on Thursday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Many local school districts were willing to help out, but the pandemic still made its ominous presence known. Several times, the projected host school would have positive COVID-19 tests and be forced to close their facility. 

“We spent a lot of time just coming up with places to play and practice in the last 18 months,” said Rittimann, who was grateful for the help of Assistant Athletic Director Jennifer Fox and Athletic Secretary Patty Juarez in finding open locations.

And while Bexar County high schools had not been practicing in August, that hadn’t been the case for Alamo Heights’ opponents, who included schools in Kendall, Kerr, Wilson, and Medina counties. 

“When we got to come back,” Rittimann said, “we felt like we were behind the curve. 

“All the other schools in our competitive district didn’t get shut down [because] we were the only ones in Bexar County. So they were still practicing and meeting and lifting and doing stuff, so we just felt like we were way behind.”

The Mules quickly caught up, winning all five of their district games and finishing the season 7-3. 

“I give the credit to the kids and the parents,” Rittimann said. “They put their trust in us without really knowing us, and that’s kind of a rare thing these days.”

Plan B at the ready

Now, with the 2021 season opener in focus, Rittimann and the Mules are enjoying the relative return to normalcy, even with the recent surge of COVID-19 cases. Of course, as events continue to develop with the pandemic, the Mules remain poised to deal with bumps in the road. 

“We plan out what we think is our best practice schedule and agenda for what we need to get done, but we always tell our coaches to have plan B ready because it can change any day,” Rittimann said.

“That’s what we’re doing, and that’s why I give credit again to the kids and these coaches because they’ve been prepared for everything. [Last year] typically it was Plan B that we ended up executing, and we still found a way to be successful.”

Mark Kusenberger is a broadcaster for high school sports, UTSA baseball, and minor league baseball as well as a writer, musician, and systems analyst.