What a difference a season makes. Santa Monica High School’s football team went through hell and back in the last one, but they’re feeling a lot stronger about this one.

Last season the young Vikings endured: a shortened season, numerous players opting out due to COVID-19 health concerns and many players getting injured due to restrictive training along with a hurried start to the season.

The injuries were in large part due to a lack of training space. Santa Monica High did not have any access to an indoor weight room last season, which limited them to only lifting outside. The players also missed out on time spent in the gym and getting their bodies ready for the physical sport of football.

“We couldn’t do some of the lifts that are required of a football player, all the Olympic lifts, so you got bench, you got squat, incline, military press, shoulders, trucks, upright rows all this stuff,” head coach Matthew Kirk said. “But then you also need to be able to do the deadlift and the power clean. The Olympic stuff is for explosion and power. We couldn’t do those things, we could only work with dumbbells and I think that hurt us in the long run.”

Samohi only had a few weeks of practice before playing in the spring due to the winter coronavirus surge that made them shut things down before they truly got started. The team then had to re-start the offseason program without much time.

Santa Monica suffered so many injuries that they ended up calling off the season with two games remaining.

“We had a lot of broken collarbones,” Kirk said. “Three broken collarbones. I’ve never seen anything like that before. And then we just had a bunch of other little nagging injuries here and there to where we had to cut it.”

The team ended up 0-3.

This season, the Vikings are still dealing with COVID-19 havoc but it has not been as pronounced. Santa Monica had three games canceled this season but Coach Kirk used Twitter to recover them.

“I was able to muster up three different games this year for us that weren’t on our original schedule,” Kirk said.

He and other coaches around Southern California reach out to LA Times sportswriter, Eric Sondheimer. He has a large Twitter following and through conversation with other coaches, matches are sometimes found.

While the Vikings were able to recover their canceled games, they have had to play five straight away games to start the season due to restrictions on the use of their “home” field. The team plays their home games at Santa Monica College, and SMC requires all participants, essential staff and spectators to show either proof of vaccination with photo ID or a negative COVID-19 test taken in the last 72 hours in order to gain admittance.

It is no secret COVID-19 is still the biggest hurdle, but the team is just thankful to play and is taking advantage of what they did not have last year — a full roster, a regular offseason, access to their indoor gym and a full season.

The Vikings also have running back, Jameer Smith, a senior attracting attention from several colleges. Their coaching staff has high expectations for the quarterback, lineman and receivers as well.

“Our whole team mentality has changed for the better,” Smith said. “We are way more motivated [this season].”

The coaching staff is also feeling confident about upcoming seasons due to the return of youth tackle football after years without it.

“Next fall in Santa Monica youth tackle football returns and it will practice at our schools so that’s a good step in the right direction,” Kirk said. “Because there is no tackle football in Santa Monica there hasn’t been a team for a few years now. There’s only been a flag. So most of our kids never even played tackle football. We get kids that just are athletes, they play at JAMS and Lincoln, they play NFL flag. But they never played tackle and so their first time playing tackle is with us and it just takes a few years for kids to turn into football players and the best ones we have are the ones that have already played tackle football.”

Youth football returning also means local children will learn the varsity team’s verbiage and continually allow the team to create the family feeling players enjoy. It’s what convinced the team’s junior starting quarterback to leave Carlsbad and join the Vikings.

“The thing that’s special about this team is how they create a great family environment,” Logan Ebnet said. “When I moved to Samo, I didn’t know anyone. As soon as I met my teammates they recognized me and instantly brought me in as one of their brothers.”

The team hosts their very first home game at SMC and begins league play on Friday at 7 p.m. Santa Monica is slated to play five straight league games and if they can win three of them, they will make the playoffs.

UPDATE: After publication, Santa Monica’s first home game was cancelled due to a Viking testing positive. Vaccinated players that test negative can play, but because Santa Monica does not have enough vaccinated players, they could not field a team for Friday.