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SOU opts out of conference play in three sports

The athletic landscape for Southern Oregon University, having already gone through myriad changes because of COVID-19, has been further rearranged with the school opting out of its Cascade Collegiate Conference schedules in men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s cross-country and volleyball.

SOU athletic director Matt Sayre made the announcement Thursday following a meeting of Cascade Conference ADs.

For now, the conference plans to press on sans the Raiders — and two other schools — with basketball slated to begin Jan. 8, volleyball in late January and cross-country overlapping with track and field in the spring.

The conference originally set a Dec. 11 deadline for schools to opt out, then moved it to Thursday. Two Washington members, Evergreen State and Walla Walla, pulled out earlier.

Sayre cited the health and well-being of athletes and staff and doing “right by the local community that supports us” as motivation for not being tied to a conference schedule.

The decision, arrived at after weeks of consultation with SOU coaches and input from athletes, comes in the midst of surging coronavirus cases not only in Jackson County, but in most other Cascade locales. It also comes as state-mandated restrictions against contact sports, including basketball, prevent teams from engaging in normal practices, let alone games.

Volleyball and cross-country are fall sports, and basketball is a winter sport.

“As we dug deeper into the sports we decided to opt out of,” said Sayre, “just the realities of getting a season in safely before NAIA playoffs and really making that a pinch point on our student-athletes wasn’t a viable option for us.”

Jackson County is in Oregon’s extreme-risk category, the highest of four categories, and saw its number of cases climb above 4,000 this week.

Harvard Global Health Institute metrics indicate only two counties that are home to Cascade schools would qualify as safe places to host competitions, said Sayre, identifying a resource the conference uses. They are Thurston, in Washington, where Evergreen State is, and Lane in Oregon, home of Bushnell.

“The rest of us are red, which is not good,” said Sayre, adding that Montana and Idaho counties in the loop are crimson, a new category that is worse than red.

“The worst thing that somebody could say is that we’re overprotective, or overcautious,” he said. “We don’t want the worst that could be said is that we pushed our student-athletes and our staff out there in an unsafe environment and made them travel and exposed them and their parents and their grandparents. It’s just not what we want to do right now.”

There is still hope for competition for the opt-out sports should safe conditions emerge in the spring. The basketball and volleyball teams can schedule exhibition-type contests with other schools, no matter the level and without sanctions.

The NAIA announced earlier that fall and winter athletes would not be charged a season of eligibility this school year.

SOU men’s basketball coach Brian McDermott said the decision to opt out, although difficult, was imminent.

“Nobody’s really happy, obviously, that we don’t have a season until later, if at all,” he said. “But there’s absolutely no question in my mind that it’s the right thing to do. I’m glad that we have the leadership that we have over here, and wish there was a little more of it around the league.”

Given the spread of the virus and the expectation it will only get worse in the winter, McDermott said, it’s not “very realistic” the Cascade schedule will work.

He’s disappointed the entire conference didn’t stand down.

Statistics show 20-year-olds aren’t likely to be hit hard by the virus, McDermott acknowledged, adding, “We all know the numbers.”

But if a 20-something gets the virus and passes it to a 70-year-old, he said, “We know what those numbers are, too. And that’s the part I don’t get. We’re way past the athletics part. Now it’s the part of being good citizens and doing the right thing.”

Raider volleyball coach Josh Rohlfing voiced similar sentiment, noting that with a scheduled Jan. 28 conference start as Jackson County remains at extreme risk, “I don’t know how we travel from hotspot to hotspot and don’t bring something back to our community.”

Reaching a decision about the season alleviates some of the uncertainty his players have dealt with as various deadlines and a variety of protocols have been thrown at them.

“There’s a lot of talk about the mental health piece, and they need to be playing and so on and so forth,” said Rohlfing. “A lot of what I’m seeing personally is the ambiguity is what’s really hard. It’s the lack of decision-making We’ve got to make decisions that are in the best interest of our community and our student-athletes.”

Sayre understands Cascade athletic directors and coaches “really want something tangible to happen this year for their student-athletes, so I don’t hold that against them. That’s just not the way we’re going to do it.

One of the considerations for bowing out was that participation in national tournaments and meets would require travel to the Midwest.

Should SOU teams engage in makeshift seasons in the spring, the basketball and volleyball teams would stick to regional schedules. The cross-country runners would compete on the track team.

In basketball, McDermott said, it would be like putting on an AAU tournament, and he can envision playing three or four games a week for a month or more.

“You get a chance to practice, it wouldn’t be a total lost year,” he said. “Practice and learn and play a few games and hopefully in the fall it gets better and we can get back to a little normalcy.”

Rohlfing foresees an opportunity to play and roll “right into the fall season next year,” he said. “We’re going to have to get creative, but that’s what the last nine months has been.”

The SOU wrestling team, like basketball, a winter contact sport, remains hopeful it can return to competition in time for championship meets. It does not adhere to a conference season that determines advancement.

“We could qualify for the national tournament without even wrestling once,” said Sayre.

Seasons for football, soccer, softball and track and field are scheduled to go on, with February as the earliest starting point.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

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