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Uncertainty remains as SOU's schedule cut to 4 games

ASHLAND — With every new schedule that comes out for the reworked Frontier Conference football season, Charlie Hall has seen his team’s number of games shrink that much more.

There was once the full slate of 10. Then it was cut down to seven as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, after the Frontier Conference announced last week it has adopted a schedule that will begin March 20, Hall and the Southern Oregon University football team are hoping a four-game schedule is the one that is actually a go.

“I can’t even wrap my head around it sometimes,” Hall said after a long sigh. “Having gone from last spring and putting together the schedule to the summer and have things changed. Then have it pushed back to October and then pushed back to the spring for seven games, and now pushed back further for four games the people I feel sorry for the most are the players. And especially the older players because they’re not getting any younger.

“I feel bad for those senior kids and just for the uncertainty for the players that are here. They’re on a constant roller coaster of training, trying to ramp things up but don’t have the resources, don’t have the ability to train at different places. It’s really unfortunate.”

The four-game schedule begins with back-to-back home games against defending Frontier Conference champion College of Idaho and Carroll College. SOU will then play the second half of the schedule on the road, first traveling to Rocky Mountain College in Montana before an April 10 regular-season finale against rival Eastern Oregon.

The four-game schedule, as short as it may be, does meet the minimum requirements for participation in the NAIA Championship Series.

The start of the NAIA Championship Series was postponed last August until April 17, with the national championship game to be played May 10 in Grambling, Louisiana.

But, before the SOU football team can actually take the field and begin practicing like they’ve been wanting to do for months now, there’s a major hurdle that needs to be cleared.

And it’s a complete unknown as to when that will happen.

As has been hanging over a handful of SOU teams, clearance from Gov. Kate Brown’s office to allow full-contact practices and games will determine if a season happens.

The Raiders have been in the same holding pattern since the early days of the pandemic. Proposals for screening and protocols have been submitted to the governor’s office, but have yet to receive approval. And, with no indication of when a decision might come, frustration continues to be a theme.

“I’m just hoping for any kind of movement at this point,” Hall said. “We’re just kind of in this gridlock of where to go, and really with not a lot of scientific explanations. ... You look at our players and where we’re at now, we haven’t had (full) contact (at practice) in over 400 days going back to the end of 2019. It will be at 450 days soon.”

SOU’s winter term began nearly three weeks ago, and the Raiders are wrapping up their second full week of practice after resuming team activities on Jan. 13. Because of the current restrictions, the team has been broken up into groups that range between 15 and 30 players, with one-hour workouts before the next group comes in.

This is also the second week of SOU doing weekly COVID-19 testing throughout the athletic department.

The football team had four positive tests upon players returning to campus at the beginning of the month, Hall said. A handful of other players were quarantined due to potential close contact with those who did test positive.

“We screen our kids, we wear our masks, we try to keep everybody safe and we haven’t had much of an outbreak,” Hall said. “No outbreaks are happening because of football practice and strength and conditioning practice on our watch. When you hear that, it’s very frustrating because there are teams around the county playing with different sets of rules.”

The daily number of COVID-19 cases and the test positivity rate have been dropping in recent weeks both locally and around the state, but Jackson County remains in the “extreme risk” category. That complicates matters even further because limits on outdoor gatherings require the Raiders to practice in small groups.

Hall described the Raiders’ practices in the fall as “basketball on grass” due to the restrictions in place, with most of SOU’s on-field work having to do with its pass offense and pass defense.

“You’re looking at the data and we’re in our sixth consecutive week of being ‘extreme risk’ in Jackson County, so you don’t feel very optimistic that things are going to change suddenly,” Hall said. “If there is to be a game on March 20 (against College of Idaho), that would require us to start practicing in full contact around the end of February or first of March. That gives us about a month to really get in the best possible shape, but we’re not even close to being where we should be 30 days away from starting football practices.

“You worry about the consequences of injury based on not being prepared and all those things. It’s a difficult time and it’s very unprecedented because we don’t have (an example) to figure this out and how to have a season during a pandemic.”

The season being pushed back once again has had an effect on the players Hall has available if the Raiders are able to take the field come March.

Hall said a total of 34 players have left the program since last winter. Some of that is natural, he said, with a good number of them being freshmen who weren’t happy with their respective situations. Six players who were set to play their senior seasons in the fall of 2020 are also no longer on the SOU roster. Out of a group of eight seniors still with the team, “two or three of them” won’t be back for the fall 2021 season while the others are still deciding whether to take advantage of the NAIA giving them an extra year of eligibility.

“I think there’s two groups. There’s a group that, especially from the older players, they really want something (to happen this spring),” Hall said. “There’s a handful of kids, with each day it’s a smaller handful because some just say they’re done, among the older players that really want to play because that might be it and they won’t come back in the fall of 2021. There are players on our team that just want to focus on the fall and not be disappointed by the possibility of playing (this spring). Who’s to fault them, too?”

However many players do remain from the team that was supposed to kick off in the fall of 2020, if not for the pandemic. Hall recognizes that his team will look “way different heading from 2019 to 2021 right now.”

Plenty of young players will get the chance to play, Hall said, whether it’s this spring or come the fall.

No matter when it is, they’re just eager to play.

“We’re at the mercy of the Oregon Health Authority if we’re even going to have practice and competition,” Hall said. “I’m still going down two roads right now: maybe there’s a season and we’ll do our best to make that work, but I also realize that possibly the best answer might be we have to make a tough decision for our seniors and the rest of our players understand that we can get right back in lockstep in a typical year of preparation heading into summer and the fall. Maybe we’ll have our usual spring football that we normally have in April when we can have 15 days of practices and we can bang on each other.”

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

Southern Oregon University redshirt-junior Wyatt Hutchinson attempting to pass against the Yotes from the College of Idaho at Raider Stadium on Saturday.(PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR)