They have temporarily swapped their usual pitch for concrete, pavement, and a small patch of grass, but the players on East Mountain High School’s boys’ soccer team don’t seem to mind.

After a three-month hiatus due to Covid-19, the East Mountain boys’ soccer squad is the school’s first sports team to return to organized workouts under the New Mexico Activities Association’s return-to-play guidelines, but there’s a catch.

Vista Grande Community Complex in Sandia Park—where the Timberwolves usually practice and play their home games—remains closed.

So, the team is conducting drills and fitness activities around its campus, including the paved parking lot, the covered walkways in front of the main buildings, and the cross-country trail.

“There’s very limited grass, so we’ve had to improvise,” East Mountain second-year head coach John Larson said, adding that turnout has been good, and the players are excited to be back.

“It’s great to get back in shape and practice soccer with my friends,” East Mountain junior Tyler Burnett said.

“It’s just so nice to be able to get out and just like have something to do, because a lot of our kids have been cooped up inside and it was just like waring on us,” East Mountain senior Azariah “Aza” Jaffe said. “So now that we can come out and get a little exercise and have a little bit of enjoyment, it’s really good for us.”

Under the NMAA’s guidelines, the players check in, answer the Covid-19 questionnaire, get their temperatures taken, and then split into three separate “pods” consisting of about five in each.

Larson and assistant coaches supervise each pod, maintaining the maximum of five players to one coach. Everyone practices social distancing, and all coaches wear face coverings, meeting the state’s and the NMAA’s requirements.

The players start with some warm-up activities behind one of the classroom buildings.

When a wayward player gets too close to another, Larson commands them to “Stay apart!”

The warm-ups are followed by a run on the cross-country course behind the school.

Then the players head to the front of the school where they perform a multitude of footwork drills and endurance exercises.

Aza Jaffe (foreground) dribbling along the wall during a workout at East Mountain High School. Photo by Ger Demarest.

On a small patch of grass near the student drop-off, they do a foot-juggling drill that sort of resembles hacky sack with a soccer ball.

In the parking lot, the players practice maneuvering their own soccer balls around cones.

On the covered concrete walkway, they work on their passing skills by kicking balls into a knee-high wall-bench and catch the returning ball with their feet.

They return to the patch of grass for some strength and conditioning exercises, and end with another run on the trail.

“A lot of the poor countries of the world practice on dirt and pavement and stuff like that, and we practiced a lot this winter on our basketball courts, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just different,” Larson said. “We’re making do with what we have.”

“We’ve all been pretty lazy the last couple months, so I think it’s good for all of us,” Burnett said about the improvised workouts, adding, “It would be better if we could practice normally but it’s better than nothing, for sure.”

“We’re all a little bit rusty, so as long as we’re here, getting to touch the ball a little bit, getting some conditioning in, it’s gonna help us for our season tremendously,” Jaffe said.

Larson said he and his coaches are doing everything they can to be safe and to protect the players, adding that the workouts are as much about giving the kids a sense of community as they are about skills and conditioning.

“They grew up with facebook and social media, but they miss school, believe it or not,” Larson said. “They miss each other, and they miss the camaraderie.”