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CALDWELL — What a difference a year makes.

Last fall, the College of Idaho football team was only able to gather in small pods of four due to the COVID-19 pandemic, unsure of when — or even if — a season could begin.

On Thursday, the Yotes were together as a full team for their first practice of the fall 2021 season, preparing for a full 10-game schedule.

“We’re really excited, I think everybody’s ready,” said senior running back Nick Calzaretta. “We practiced for a year straight. We know how special it is to be out here, doing everything on schedule, how football is supposed to be.”

The Yotes were eventually able to play a four-game spring schedule starting in March, with three of the eight Frontier Conference opting out of the spring season all together. The Yotes won their first three games before falling to Carroll in the season finale, a loss which kept the Yotes out of the NAIA playoffs.

“I think it was a blessing, we were fortunate to play a four-game season and get introduced to the new guys and continue to play football,” said senior tight end Connor Gagain. “But I think this is the year everyone is looking forward to with all the anticipation. We’re ready to have a full season and win some football games together.”

The Yotes finished the spring season tied with Carroll and Eastern Oregon atop the Frontier Conference standing, and signage outside Simplot Stadium indicates the Yotes as defending champions. But in a way, coaches and players said that the spring season really served as a lead up into this season.

“You want to be into it in the most legitimate way,” said Yotes coach Mike Moroski. “Not that the spring was illegitimate, it just didn’t feel very good, it was hard to get that feeling. Having said that, we had a great spring season. We got a lot out of it, guys came a long way. But it still felt a little bit more like spring football and then this is what it’s supposed to feel like.”

With continued concerns about COVID-19 and the delta variant, the pandemic still remains a storyline in the preseason. There are still protocols to follow, although Moroski declined to comment on what some of those protocols were or give specific vaccination numbers. He did say that a “vast majority” of the Yotes have received their vaccine for the COVID-19 virus.

“It’s definitely more work, but if you want to play the game, you got to do it to keep everyone safe,” Gagain said about the protocols. “That’s the world we’re living in right now. It’s unfortunate, but it’s what you got to do to get on the field. I think most of our guys are going to do that.”

The Yotes will be returning 10 starters on each side from the spring season. Those numbers are similar to the 2019 season, when the Yotes finished the regular season unbeaten, qualified for the NAIA Tournament for the first time in program history and won a playoff game against Ottawa (Ariz.) before falling to Grand View (Iowa).

But Moroski warned that it’s not quite a fair comparison, since all the 2019 returners had at least a full season under their belts coming into the year, often times more than that. A lot of this year’s returners were first-time starters in the spring.

That’s not to say the experience gained in the spring won’t help in the fall.

“We’re a young team right now,” junior linebacker Dylan Martinez said. “But I think a lot of guys stepped up and the coaches noticed that. Now we’re just trying to get everyone better, more dialed in than we were in the spring. We were one game short in the spring, so I think we’re looking good.”

The Yotes will hold practices this week and next before hosting a scrimmage at Simplot Stadium on Aug. 13. The following week, on Aug. 20, the Yotes will be scrimmaging Linfield College at a neutral site in Hermiston, Oregon. Their opener is scheduled for Aug. 28 at Montana State-Northern.

John Wustrow is the assistant sports editor of the Idaho Press. He is a Michigan native and a graduate of Indiana University.

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