The wait is over for many high school football teams in Southwest Riverside County. Not the wait to play football, per se, as most schools were able to squeeze in a shortened season earlier this year amid the pandemic. But the wait to play a full season, and have playoffs, and even the possibility of State Bowl games, is finally over. There are some local programs that have not played the sport competitively in over a year, but that was by choice due to weary planning from the COVID-19 crisis that would have put their programs in jeopardy of having to Band-Aid the season.

Perris was one of the only comprehensive public schools in the local area that did not play football games in the spring. The Panthers received district approval to play, but certain logistics, like transportation to and from practices, led to the program only having around 14 players available for the spring season. Other schools, especially charter schools like Santa Rosa and Temecula Prep, also took the season off, but are ready to hit the field to see where they stand.

Coming off the shortest season ever, where there were no playoffs or renowned league championship titles, high school football teams across the area have been hard at work over the summer. Many programs open their 2021-2022 season with Week Zero games this week as Friday night lights make a triumphant return to the area. Is a full season guaranteed? No. Nothing is guaranteed as long as COVID-19 is still lurking, but schools are taking the appropriate precautions the best they can in order to get a full season in.

Will there be hills to climb? Of course, especially when positive test results come in. Last week, the Centennial football team had to cancel its season opener against Mater Dei because two players tested positive for coronavirus and others had to quarantine after COVID-19 contact tracing. The showdown between the two Southern California powerhouses was a highly anticipated match-up and there are several other phenomenal matchups slated to be played this year as well. Non-league clashes between some of the best programs in the Inland area and league games that could decide championships are in danger as new variants pop up and the spread of the virus continues, even with vaccinations on the rise.

The run for a league title starts Friday, Oct. 1, so local teams have the next six weeks to work out the kinks with testing and staying healthy, while at the same time tearing up the gridiron during the preseason. With all that said, here is a look at some of the top local teams, and players, to be on the watch for.

Senior quarterback, Brady Jones, returns to lead the Vista Murrieta offense as they search for another Southwestern League title. Valley News/David Canales photo

VISTA MURRIETA (5-0 in spring; 8-4 in 2019): The Broncos were impressive in the spring and will be seeking the program’s third straight Southwestern League championship. Senior quarterback Brady Jones is back to lead the offense, and UCLA-bound tight end Jack Pedersen has returned for his senior season. Jones is one of the steadiest quarterbacks in the Inland area. In five games last season, he completed 67% of his passes for 942 yards and 10 TDs. Pederson is one of the top all-around tight ends in the nation and returns to Vista Murrieta after spending a year at IMG Academy.

Vista Murrieta always excels in special teams and the defense will be led by linebacker AJ Poyer, the co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Southwestern League this past spring.

Season opener: Aug. 20 vs. Norco at Vista Murrieta High School, 7 p.m.

Murrieta Valley’s Brandon Rose, a Utah commit, has thrown for 4,502 yards and 41 TDs over 16 career starts for the Nighthawks. Valley News/Andrez Imaging

MURRIETA VALLEY (3-2 in spring; 8-3 in 2019): The Nighthawks once again will have one of the most productive offensive units in the area, with senior quarterback Brandon Rose and junior receiver Tiger Bachmeier among the best at their positions. Rose, a Utah commit, has put up big numbers since taking over the offense. He has thrown for 4,502 yards and 41 TDs over 16 career starts. Bachmeier was impressive in his first season with the Nighthawks catching 33 passes for 600 yards and six touchdowns during the spring. Players to watch include senior Jake Steele and younger brother Jason, who will be forces on the line for the Nighthawks. Jake, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound tackle, has committed to San Jose State.

The big question is on the other side of the ball at Murrieta Valley. Giving up 37.4 points per game on defense during the spring will make it hard to win a Southwestern League title.

Season opener: Aug. 27 vs. Paloma Valley at Murrieta Valley High School, 7 p.m.

Player to watch, Chaparral running back Hunter Roddy (33), set a school record by rushing for 405 yards in a Southwestern League game. Valley News/Action Captures Media Group

CHAPARRAL (4-1 in spring; 7-4 in 2019): The Pumas should be in the mix for a league championship again this season even though their offense did lose some talented linemen to graduation. Junior quarterback Caron Tyler and senior running back Hunter Roddy are primed for big seasons, especially Roddy, who is headed to Army next year. He has rushed for 1,568 yards and 27 TDS in nine starts with the Pumas.

The defense should be strong with linebacker Cody Stordahl leading the way. The four-year starter has averaged 10.5 tackles per game throughout his career.

Season opener: Aug. 20 vs. San Marcos Mission Hills at Chaparral High School, 7 p.m.

RANCHO VERDE (5-0 in spring; 11-1 in 2019): The Mustangs flattened the competition during the spring, outscoring opponents 193-21 over five games. The program will look to continue that success with new coach Lawrence Duncan taking the reins from Pete Duffy. Landon DeBruyn was impressive during the spring season and will be back under center for his junior year. The junior QB had 587 yards passing and threw for 6 TDs in just three games.

Rancho Verde’s defense will be led by lineman Kamren Ware. The senior, who is only 5-foot-10, often gets the best of opposing offensive linemen with his shear strength and quickness off the snap.

Season opener: Aug. 20 vs. Kaiser

Other top players to be on the watch for around the area include:

Offense: Senior, Donovan Harvey, who had a breakthrough season for Elsinore during the spring. Harvey led the Inland area with 932 rushing yards and scored 13 TDs in only five games.

Player to watch, Elsinore’s senior running back Donovan Harvey, led the Inland area with 932 rushing yards and scored 13 TDs over the shortened spring season in 2021. Valley News/Andrez Imaging

Defense: Senior, Cade Moran, linebacker from Murrieta Mesa. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder has averaged 10 tackles per game the past two seasons.

Notable games to add to your calendar:

Aug. 20, Norco at Vista Murrieta: This should be one of the top games in Week 0, as this spring’s Big VIII and Southwestern League shortened season champions square off against one another.

Sept. 3, Apple Valley at Murrieta Valley: In what promises to be a high-scoring affair, two of the state’s top quarterbacks, Jayden Denegal (Apple Valley) and Brandon Rose (Murrieta Valley), will go toe-to-toe to lead their offenses.

Oct. 1, Vista Murrieta at Chaparral: The opening week of Southwestern League play includes this terrific matchup between two of the top contenders in the league. Vista Murrieta pulled out an exhilarating 34-33 victory during the spring.

Oct. 1, North at Orange Vista: The Sunbelt League kicks off with this game between North and Orange Vista, who did not play during the spring and have split their previous two meetings. Both teams look to be title favorites.

Oct. 22, Murrieta Valley at Vista Murrieta: This crosstown rivalry always puts fans in the bleachers and brings a theatrical show to the field. Vista Murrieta topped Murrieta Valley 51-41 in their most recent showdown and with two top QBs returning to the mix, things could go either way. Defense will be key in a win.

Oct. 29, Citrus Hill at San Jacinto: This game usually decides the Mountain Pass League championship. Despite San Jacinto winning the past two contests, Citrus Hill has dominated the series for more than a decade.

Photos and sports scores/stats/highlights can be submitted to sports@reedermedia.com. Stats, standings, results provided by MaxPreps, local ADs, fans of the game and the Valley News Sports Department.

JP Raineri can be reached by email at sports@reedermedia.com.