Pius XI’s Maurice Hughes (8) opened the scoring on Friday, April 16, by taking a short pass near the line of scrimmage and sprinting 23 yards on the Popes’ opening drive. Pius defeated Messwood, 42-8. (Photo by David Bernacchi)

While the pandemic has taken many things from kids and students over the past year, some things have just been delayed, such as the high school football season.

Approximately 110 Wisconsin high school teams opted to play their seasons this spring, including three high schools in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee: Pius XI, Messwood (a co-op team of students from Messmer and Shorewood high schools) and Saint Mary’s Springs.

Other than the baseball practice happening on an adjacent field, a smaller-than-normal crowd without students — because of safety protocols — and the presence of facemasks on non-players on the sidelines, the Friday, April 16, game between Pius XI and Messwood didn’t seem all that different from when some of these students last played in the fall of 2019.

And perhaps that’s the most important byproduct of this unique spring season: a little bit of a sense of normal for students who have had their lives upended.

“It’s very difficult,” Pius coach Kyle Henry said. “Not only do you have COVID involved, but you have other sports going on. They’re pulling a lot of players away from the team. It’s a challenge.”

Pius ended up winning 42-8 for its first victory of the season, as it looks to shift momentum for a program that had won just eight of its previous 56 games.

“I think the spring is going to get us ready for the fall,” Messwood coach Tony Davis said. “It will help because they boys are playing some ball right now. It’s going to help them for the fall because you don’t have that huge gap in between.”

Both coaches understand that with an anticipated normal fall season ahead in just a few months, how they handle the offseason will be critical in preventing injuries down the line.enry

When the season ends in early May, Henry said he will give his players about two weeks off before they head into their offseason weight-lifting program and other summer activities.

“It’s about saving their bodies for the fall season,” Henry said.

“The one thing you’re worried about with the spring is injuries because it’s so close to the fall,” Davis said. “In the offseason, you have to lift, you have to get after it. We all know that. The biggest thing is going to let the boys get enough rest after the season and let their bodies heal. We’re being smart about that.”

The Popes were led by dual-threat senior quarterback Gabriel Zielinski, who was 8-for-10 passing for 215 yards and three touchdowns, and who also ran 117 yards on six carries, including a 74-yarder in the third quarter that gave his team a 35-0 lead.

Pius scored 22 points in the second quarter to take a 28-0 lead into the half. After getting the ball back with 52 seconds showing on the clock, the Popes drove 83 yards in four plays that took just 27 seconds, right before halftime, in what turned out to be a finishing blow.

“It’s a big momentum swing thing,” Henry said. “If you come into that second half after scoring that touchdown — that changes everything.”

Messwood (1-2) had its chances early in the game, but an inability to finish drives on offense or defense turned things sour in a hurry.

The Greyhounds drove 40 yards in nine plays on their opening drive before stalling out on downs at the Popes’ 30-yard line. On Pius’ ensuing possession, the Popes faced third-and-16, but Zielinski found Sincere Rhodes-Clayborn for a 26-yard completion. Four plays later, Maurice Hughes (three catches for 116 yards) caught a pass from Zielinski in the flat near the line of scrimmage and took it 23 yards for the opening score.

“Our biggest problem is getting off the field in those situations (on defense),” Davis said. “Their touchdowns were on huge, explosive plays.”

Messwood got two first downs on its next drive before being forced to punt. The Popes finished the next drive when Zielinski connected with Hughes for a 64-yard touchdown pass on third-and-13.

Pius, which had 407 yards of total offense, also got 69 yards rushing and two touchdowns from junior Mekhi Roberts.

Messwood’s double-wing rushing attack was led by sophomore Ishmael Emmanuel-Holloway’s 106 yards on 22 carries, and quarterback Jeremiah Thompson ran 19 times for 68 yards and an 11-yard touchdown with 3:52 left in the game.