EL CAMPO — Nathan Willis was back at Ricebird Stadium on Wednesday morning for strength and conditioning drills as he has been for most of the summer.

But Willis couldn’t help but notice a different demeanor among his El Campo teammates following the UIL’s announcement Tuesday that practices and the season for teams in Class 4A and below would begin on schedule.

“We were very excited,” said Willis, who started at the defensive rover position last season. “The whole team, once they said we’re going to start on time and put on pads on time. It’s just that feeling that we’re actually going to be able to play again.”

Willis admits he had some doubts about his senior season since the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to athletics in the spring and restricted strength and conditioning drills.

“It was very different,” he said. “We’re doing smaller groups and smaller stations. The weight room is all different. It feels a little out of kilter. It’s not perfect yet and not right back to where it was.”

El Campo is preparing for what could be a special season. The Ricebirds are ranked No. 8 in the Texas Football Class 4A, Division I preseason poll.

“We have the skill and we have the players,” Willis said. “It’s just the mentality. We struggled with mentality last year, but I think this team has way better mentality and I think we’re going to go really far.”

El Campo coach Wayne Condra has been pleased with the turnout for strength and conditioning drills, which he restructured this summer.

“It was different for the better,” Condra said. “Being able to combine and have a little more time to work specific drills. We’ve had great participation all summer.”

The Ricebirds return almost intact at the skill positions – including quarterback Cullen Braden and running backs Charles Shorter, Johntre Davis and Rueben Owens — but must replace all but two starters on the offensive line.

“We’ve been working hard for this moment,” said junior lineman Kerry North. “Right now, we’re just trying to find the missing pieces. We’ll put the new pieces in and we’re going to get to work. There are no excuses. We’re going to go out and make sure things are coming together.”

Willis has been pleased by what he’s seen this summer.

“We’re staying in shape and doing some conditioning,” he said. “We’re refreshing all our offensive plays and defensive plays, showing positions, getting the new guys ready. We’re having the senior guys show all the returnees what it’s about.”

Condra remains optimistic but cautious as he looks forward to beginning workouts Aug. 3.

“We’re in the same boat as everybody else is,” he said. “We’ve been out here doing things, but as far as putting everything together is still unseen. We’re excited about seeing how everything falls together. I think the kids are ready to get back to work.”

NOTES: El Campo lost its Sept. 4 game against Fulshear and its Sept. 25 game against Boerne Champion.

The Ricebirds will still play non-district games against Gonzales, Calhoun and Wharton.

El Campo hopes to play Victoria West on Sept. 25. But the game is contingent upon West being able to resume strength and conditioning drills.

Mike Forman is the sports editor of the Victoria Advocate. Contact him at 361-580-6588 or by email at mforman@vicad.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeforman21

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Mike Forman is the sports editor of the Victoria Advocate. He has worked at the Advocate since 1982. He has a bachelor's degree from SMU and a master's degree from UCLA.

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