By Luke Ottinger, Wrangler News contributor
As Friday night approaches, the tantalizing smell of hotdogs and popcorn, the deafening sound of drums and trumpets, and the cheers of the faithful who once filled high school football stadiums will be muted by COVID-19.
It’s a difficult sendoff for the seniors.
However, for many young men, those traditions remain treasured memories from their high school playing days.
It’s not over just yet. Four Marcos de Niza High seniors will get at least one more ride together on Friday when the Padres (4-3) visit seventh-seeded Northwest Christian (4-2) in the play-in round of the Class 4A playoffs.
What makes the journey so special for Nico Updyke, Nate Camarena, Jayden Calderon and Antonio Hernandez, Jr., is that they have been playing together on teams for 11 years.
Their odyssey began on a Rio Salado League flag-football team coached by Antonio Hernandez, Sr. He, too, has stayed with them. He now is on the coaching staff at Marcos.
Memories are flooding back this week for the four.
Camarena once ate too much before a youth-league game and wasn’t allowed to play because he weighed too much for the division. He tried to run it off.
“I was trying to sweat it all out,” he said.
Another year, Calderon almost didn’t get signed up in time to play.
And, Hernandez Jr., once broke his collarbone, so Calderon stepped in to play in his place.
Hernandez Jr. recalled a youth-league tournament in Las Vegas in 2015 and how fun it was to be together as the winner of it all.
The four agreed that their favorite moment was a 2014 state playoff berth in youth football and playing in Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Stadium.
“Getting to that championship and running through the Pat Tillman Tunnel” was special, Calderon said.
Their victory led to a trip to Florida, where they placed fourth in the national championships.
As they moved on to high school, open enrollment in the Tempe Union High School District presented Updyke with a choice. Corona del Sol was his home school. He had friends and knew coaches at Mountain Pointe. Yet his three buddies were going to Marcos.
He chose to stay with them.
All four are having outstanding senior seasons.
Hernandez, Jr., the Padres’ quarterback, in six games has completed 70 of 121 passes for 1,017 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Among his favorite targets are Updyke (31 catches, 480 yards, 15.5-yard average and 9 touchdowns) and Camarena (4 catches, 115 yards, 28.8-yard average).
Calderon is a bruising running back with 613 yards on 96 carries (6.4-yard average) for 102 yards a game.
There was a long silence as each pondered what might come next.
Updyke is hoping to get an offer to play and continue his education at Northern Arizona in sports medicine.
Camarena talked about attending trade school and working with his dad and brothers.
Calderon wants to further his education at NAU and become an accountant or engineer, although he has not ruled out playing football at a community college.
Hernandez, Jr., might play at a community college or pursue an engineering degree at NAU.
Hernandez, Sr., wants to keep coaching at Marcos alongside head coach Anthony Figueroa and rebuild the team into a state-championship contender. He also is hoping to continue coaching Updyke’s little brother’s flag football team.
“Keep it rolling,” Hernandez, Sr., said of the tradition.
While friendship and camaraderie always will be at the forefront of youth sports, parents, too, establish bonds with the players and coaches along the way.
“As parents we have been lucky enough to be a part of it all,” said Lisa Updyke, Nico’s mom. “We all have vacationed and enjoyed holidays together, and just plain old hung out on the weekends.
“We have become family versus just a parent who has a kid on the team.”