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SOU still waiting for clearance to practice

ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon University men’s basketball team is scheduled to open its season on Nov. 24.

But, there’s a catch.

It is a game that has already been pushed back once, from Nov. 17. And it is a game, against archrival Oregon Tech, that under current conditions is very much a question mark even though it is still a month away.

The SOU athletic department — as well as the other Cascade Conference schools in Oregon — is waiting for clearance from Gov. Kate Brown’s office to resume full-contact practices and subsequently be allowed to compete in games amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to SOU officials, the conference submitted a plan to the governor’s office two weeks ago that outlines the CCC’s proposed guidelines for virus testing and screening as well as protocols if a team has an outbreak prior to a game.

“We understand the reticence and the politics, we understand the gravity of this decision, but we also feel like we’ve got a good plan in place with our testing, our screening, our game cancellation policies and our no fans in venues rules,” SOU athletic director Matt Sayre said. “We understand and we’re trying to be patient, but we also need an answer. It would be great to get one sooner rather than later.”

When asked if the Raiders-Owls game Nov. 24 will happen, Sayre answered: “I don’t think so.”

“That’s coming pretty near and we need to have enough time to actually have practices where there’s contact,” he added. “It’s still on the schedule, though.”

Athletic directors around the Cascade Conference have put together “a couple of backup schedules,” said Sayre, if the plan submitted to the governor’s office is not accepted in the near future.

The SOU men and women are scheduled to open their conference schedules on Dec. 4 against Eastern Oregon in Ashland. For the women, that would also be the season opener.

“We’ve sent a plan, the Cascade Conference has sent a plan to the governor’s office and we’re just waiting to see if they’re going to revisit that order in, hopefully, the next six weeks, or not,” Sayre said. “If we don’t hear anything from the governor’s office, then we’ll probably move to looking at a schedule that starts later in January or something like that.”

“I think the plan is a pretty good plan for resuming practices, but I don’t know if any plan is going to be able to cover the travel,” SOU men’s head coach Brian McDermott said. “To me, that’s the big sticking point. I’m not sure that anybody’s going to be safe traveling at any level.”

Without clearance from the state, McDermott and the Raiders — who were 24-7 before the 2019-20 season was abruptly ended prior to the Round of 16 of the NAIA Division II national championships due to the pandemic — can only do a fraction of what a normal practice would consist of in the first few weeks of the preseason.

This week was the first time during the preseason that McDermott had his whole team practicing at once, with the 12-player roster previously doing work in groups of three, then four, then six.

The Raiders started training with groups of three on Sept. 28.

With no scrimmaging allowed due to the COVID-19 restrictions, McDermott has had his team going 5-on-nobody since it went to full team practices.

“So far, it’s been OK,” he said. “I think we’re starting to get conditioned pretty well. One of my goals is to be really well conditioned when it comes time — if there is a time — when we can start contact so that there’s not a long time (for conditioning) once we get that permission. We want to have most of our stuff in and then be very well conditioned and then see how long it takes us to get game ready.”

Having these restrictions while preparing for a season is something that virtually every college in Oregon is dealing with.

Not every college, though.

Oregon and Oregon State are the only two four-year schools that have gotten clearance from the governor’s office to begin full-contact practices.

Other than those two, whether it’s at the NCAA Division I level (Portland State and the University of Portland) or the NAIA (SOU, OIT and others), it’s a waiting game with no end date in sight.

The state’s two Pac-12 schools have more financial resources than SOU and other NAIA schools. The governor’s office and the Oregon Health Authority gave Oregon and Oregon State clearance for full-contact practices thanks to a rigorous rapid-result testing plan that is being used throughout the Pac-12.

SOU’s men haven’t had a full-on practice since playing in the national tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota — and that was in the middle of March.

“It’s been a long time,” McDermott said with a slight laugh. “It hasn’t been bad so far and the kids have been great. But I don’t know how much longer we can do it without competition and still keep the level of intensity up where it’s at right now.”

Teams need a minimum of 15 games to qualify for selection to the NAIA national tournament. As it stands right now, the Raiders’ schedule consists of 24 games, 22 of which are conference games.

“As we look at it as a conference and a group of athletic directors, we have to give them a minimum of 15 games to qualify for a national playoff, so when can we get 15 games in, how can we get 15 games in,” Sayre said. “Obviously, our best-case scenario would be to get a full season in, but that may not be likely in this environment. Then you back up from the national championship game and back up from there with that timeline.”

Despite current restrictions and that they haven’t had an intrasquad scrimmage since the spring, McDermott feels like his players handled everything well.

“The kids have done a really good job of working hard in the 3-on-0, 5-on-0 stuff,” McDermott said. “They’re doing a nice job with that. In some ways, it’s a better format — especially for the new guys. We’re probably doing a better job of teaching things and probably will get more reps in teaching different things to the new guys.

“Once we get into the competition, they will be further ahead than they ordinarily are.”

When that is, however, remains anyone’s guess.

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

Southern Oregon University head men’s basketball coach Brian McDermott talks to his players during a timeout at a Dec. 10, 2018, game against Simpson University at Lithia Motors Pavilion in Ashland. (Mail Tribune file photo)