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Sayre, Raiders still waiting for return of games

The field at Raider Stadium is quiet these days. Same goes for Lithia Motors Pavilion and the rest of the Southern Oregon University athletic facilities.

Even though organized practices have been conducted since early October and are set to resume following the start of the winter term in a matter of days, the fact is that the COVID-19 pandemic still has SOU teams in a holding pattern and they have yet to play a game in nine months.

“It’s a different world. The upside is that I have weekends off,” SOU athletic director Matt Sayre said with a laugh earlier this week. “That’s the only upside, I guess.”

LIke many small colleges across the United States in 2020, SOU has gone from spring to summer, summer to fall and now into the winter without any kind of games being played. There have been schedules put in place, then reworked and, in just about every case for the Raiders, seen start dates pushed back for months.

“It’s like treading water in a slow-moving river,” Sayre said when asked about the last nine months. “We’re all trying to figure it out.

“All of the athletic directors that I know in (the Cascade Conference), we’re all dealing with the same thing: How do we provide a great experience for our student-athletes during this pandemic. It’s just a constant dilemma.”

While games have not been constant since early March, the ways to try and find a safe environment for athletes to practice in for Sayre, SOU’s coaches and the rest of the athletic department has.

In the weeks leading up to the pandemic taking hold on the sporting world and shutting so many states and schools down, SOU was in the midst of quite the exciting time just as winter was turning to spring.

SOU’s softball team was ranked No. 1 in the country as it was defending the program’s first-ever national championship. The Raiders’ men’s basketball team was in the Round of 16 at the NAIA national tournament in South Dakota. SOU’s women’s wrestling team was also about to compete at the national level, in North Dakota at the NAIA Individual Tournament, which never got underway.

“We miss seeing them play, we miss seeing them around,” Sayre said. “We just feel their pain that they are young, they are social, they are motivated and they want to be doing the thing that they love the most in their sport and they can’t do it. It’s hard. We keep looking for silver linings. We also keep looking for opportunities and that’s all we can do at this point.”

From the start of the pandemic, Sayre has maintained that the health of SOU’s athletes is the top priority.

That is something that played a major role in the school’s decision to not participate in the reworked Cascade Conference men’s and women’s basketball season as well as the postponed volleyball and cross-country from the fall,

Also at play: SOU, along with every other small college in Oregon, still hasn’t received approval from Gov. Kate Brown’s office to have full-contact practices.

SOU’s basketball and football teams have only been able to do a fraction of what normal practices are like due to the no-contact restrictions.

“With basketball in particular, it’s saying let’s continue to practice, let’s continue to try and do what we can do under the auspices of the Oregon Health Authority and the governor’s office and look for that silver lining in the spring when things are hopefully better and safer and we get some kind of competitions,” Sayre said. “That’s really, as you start to talk to athletic directors now, the conversation is less and less and less about national championships and playoffs, and more and more and more about getting to play, getting our student-athletes an opportunity to play — especially those seniors.”

It’s a fine line to walk when trying to deal with everything that comes along with trying to have sports take place during a pandemic. And that’s especially true for a small school like SOU that can’t test with the same frequency as the biggest colleges in the state.

As much as they want to see their teams return to the field, Sayre and the SOU coaches have to assess whether the risk is worth the reward.

When it comes to the decision to opt out of basketball, volleyball and cross-country, having to start those seasons as Jackson County and Oregon are still very much at the height of the pandemic would have made it difficult to completely ensure the safety of the athletes.

“With everything, we examine the ‘Why?’” Sayre said. “We look at why we would push our student-athletes to play before the governor’s office would allow us to play, but also during the height and the worst part of the pandemic to try and fit it in before national championships. We just look at the why of that and why would we put our student-athletes at risk, why would we try to put a square peg in a round hole at this point.”

As frustrating as 2020 may have been, the chance to return to competition in one form or another come 2021 is a big motivating factor throughout the SOU athletic department, Sayre said.

The spring is when a good number of SOU’s sports teams could have a chance to have some sort of competition take place — be it in an official Cascade Conference capacity or some kind of independent regional competition.

The reworked men’s and women’s soccer seasons, which were scheduled to begin in mid-February, have now been pushed back to a March start date.

SOU’s softball team, which was 23-3 overall and 9-0 in Cascade Conference play when the 2020 season was suspended, is also eying an early-March start with a conference-only schedule.

Football, obviously, is a little bit more of a complicated matter since approval for full-contact practices aren’t expected anytime soon.

“Competition on the horizon is keeping a lot of spirits lifted,” Sayre said. “The opportunity to practice, the opportunity to put a ball in their hand, to run, to exercise, to lift, to be around their teammates even if they’re in masks and socially distanced, they appreciate the opportunity to do that.”

Following SOU’s decision to not have students come back to campus following the Thanksgiving holiday break, it has been six weeks since any athletic teams have gone through practice. That was the plan all along, which meant the school’s decision didn’t alter any plans that the SOU coaches had for their respective teams.

With classes starting Monday, that means athletes will be making their way back to the facilities over the course of the next week.

Sayre said that between now and Jan. 11, athletes will undergo COVID-19 testing and practices will start back up after having the month of December off. Once practices get back underway, the entire athletic department will begin weekly COVID-19 testing, per the Cascade Conference’s guidelines.

According to Sayre, SOU has had “20 or so” virus cases within the athletic department, with almost all of those coming from athletes who have tested positive once they have returned home and subsequently informed the school.

“That’s the one thing we did learn in the fall, because we conduct (practices) with masks on and coaches are pretty cognizant of the social distancing and not too much contact, that the transmission is not happening through practices and workouts,” Sayre said. “If there is transmission, it’s usually during social situations or living arrangements.”

While 2020 is now a thing of the past, what lies in store in for the early stages of 2021 is still very much uncertain.

At the very least, the chance to compete is there.

“I think that’s what our pact has been through all of this is trying to be hopeful, yes, but pragmatic first,” Sayre said. “We have to understand, and our student-athletes understand as well, that this is a different time, this is a different world we’re in at this point in time and we’re going to do the best we can, but we have to be honest and pragmatic as we do it.

“We are ready for this to pass by and for us to get back to what we love and what we do best.”

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

Southern Oregon University athletic director Matt Sayre walks through the entrance to Raider Stadium earlier this year. (Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune)