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With plenty of protocols, SOU teams return to practice

ASHLAND — If 2020 resembled anything close to normal, fall sports teams at Southern Oregon University would be in the heart of their respective conference schedules.

The reality is that games won’t be happening for months.

And rather than jockeying for position in the conference standings, Raider teams are now in the second week of the ramp-up process with eyes on late January or early February.

Practices returned to the SOU campus last week, with noticeable differences and protocols put into place due to the coronavirus pandemic. There were virus tests on every athlete before the first practice took place. There are temperature checks before practice each day. Players have masks on both around team facilities and while they go through their workouts. Everybody is expected to be socially distanced.

It is their new normal, and they are learning to adjust to it as time goes on.

“We see it on Twitter, we see it on the news and all that, but until you experience it, it’s not the same thing as it is living it,” SOU head volleyball coach Josh Rohlfing said. “For us, just not being able to see reactions and see personalities come through facially, I think that’s been a difficult task. I think we’ve handled the idea of exercising with masks on really well — there’s been no complaints.

“To have an opportunity, to us, is a godsend. That’s been awesome.”

It’s that kind of message that has been constant throughout the teams at SOU as they get going again — especially those who thought the month of October would bring scoreboard watching and competing for conference titles.

“We said to them, ‘How much do you love the game? How much have you missed the game?’” SOU head men’s soccer coach Davie Carmichael said. “We just told them to be able to continue the process and build on this fall, then we’re going to have to follow these restrictions. I’m sure they’re not greatly pleased by it, but if we don’t do it then they’ll be without a game they love so much.”

SOU teams are conducting workouts, but the extent to which they can practice is determined by category they’re in, as determined by Oregon health officials.

SOU has five teams that are considered to be in “full contact” sports — football, men’s and women’s basketball and men’s and women’s wrestling. Those teams can only do limited training, which includes the basketball teams doing workouts in small groups in Lithia Motors Pavilion throughout the day.

The low- or medium-contact sports like volleyball and soccer, however, are allowed to do much more under the current COVID-19 restrictions.

“Masks seemed a little weird at first, but we’re getting used to it,” Carmichael said. “It’s obviously difficult and we have to make sure there’s constant reminders. But that’s really how we’re treating things right now. We’re just making sure the masks stay on at practice from the time they arrive to the time they leave.”

As it stands right now, the SOU men’s basketball team is scheduled to begin its 2020-21 season with a nonconference game against Oregon Tech on Nov. 17. The SOU women, pending the addition of nonconference games, will open against Eastern Oregon on Dec. 4.

All other SOU sports, whether in the Frontier Conference or the Cascade Conference, will begin in early 2021.

The Frontier Conference announced Wednesday that it will begin its conference-only football schedule for the postponed 2020 season on Feb, 27. SOU, under the direction of fourth-year head coach Charlie Hall, will open its season at Raider Stadium against Rocky Mountain College.

Rohlfing’s volleyball team, which went 31-5 last season and will be looking to win its third straight CCC title in the spring, opens on Jan. 28. Both SOU soccer teams begin their postponed fall seasons on Feb. 14 against OIT.

With at least 3 1/2 months to go before the usual fall sports get their start, it’s now about pacing the players and building to the season opener on top of staying virus free.

For somebody like Rohlfing, who has coached at SOU for nearly two decades, telling your internal body clock it isn’t the start of the second half of conference play can take some getting used to.

“All those markers that you have, as a coach, that’s it’s the season, just aren’t there,” Rohlfing said. “My compass is way off, so it’s been kinda funky that way.”

Same goes for the players.

“I’m trying to flip it in my head and I’m trying to get them to flip it in their heads, too,” Rohlfing said. “Where we are now is tantamount to starting in April for us normally and what we would be doing at that time. It’s a little different because we’re a little more out of shape than we normally are in the spring, but it’s that idea that we can play and we don’t have to be drilling them to death right now. We can play some doubles or triples or whatever, keep it pretty light, get that skill development, get the conditioning with that and go from there. That’s where we’re at right now in our season.”

Carmichael admitted that, since the pandemic shut down operations in March, it’s the longest he’s been away from the field since he started playing soccer in his native Scotland. Team activities were conducted over Zoom after SOU officials closed the campus and went to all-virtual learning during the spring quarter.

Most classes at Southern Oregon are still online during the fall term, which began Sept. 23. The hope from coaches is that with few in-person classes over the next few months, mini bubbles will be created between players who live together.

“Most of the kids’ classes are online, so the only real reason they came back to Ashland is for the beautiful game that we love to compete in,” Carmichael said. “They’ve all missed the game, we’ve certainly missed the game as coaches. We all missed it, but we have to understand that if we don’t follow guidelines then we can all be without the game quickly again.”

And with everything that has happened since March, they may appreciate it now more than ever.

“Maybe it’s cliche right now, but the reality is we’re happy and, believe it or not, satisfied to be healthy and to have an opportunity to do something,” Rohlfing said. “Whether that takes wearing a mask, getting tested every day, whatever it is, we’re in for it. That’s OK for us. We talked a lot at the beginning about the idea that if we’re in this right now for wins and losses, we’ve already lost. We have to be in this right now for opportunities and to be a light. We want to be here for our community. We had a lot go on, so we have 20 people that can go out and help the community right now.”

Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Members of the Southern Oregon University men’s soccer team takes part in drills Wednesday at Raider Stadium in Ashland.{ }(Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune)
Southern Oregon University head men's soccer coach Davie Carmichael, rear, watches team warm up for practice Wednesday at Raider Stadium in Ashland. (Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune)