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SOU opts out of spring football season

ASHLAND — Despite reworked guidelines that might have paved the way for a pandemic-shortened spring football season next month, Southern Oregon University has decided to sit this one out.

Citing an inability to fully give their athletes “a quality, high-level playing experience” and a shrinking window to actually begin full-contact practices, SOU athletic director Matt Sayre announced Friday afternoon that the Raiders have decided to opt out of the Frontier Conference’s four-game spring season that was scheduled to begin March 20.

“We’ve been looking at our potential to play for a while,” Sayre said. “Just the timeline for us is getting too close to when we would have to compete. We do not feel that it’s safe for our student-athletes having not competed, not tackled, not blocked in 400-plus days.

“The governor’s announcement (on Wednesday) gave us pause, but realistically didn’t change much for us. To start a game March 20, that’s 36 days away. Realistically thinking about what the governor might turn around and say, ‘OK, go ahead and practice now,’ that could be a couple of weeks from now. We just feel like it’s too tight for us to commit to a Frontier Conference schedule and NAIA postseason schedule.”

The Raiders’ football team is the fourth different sport at SOU to opt out of their respective seasons for the 2020-21 academic year, joining men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball and cross-country, which each decided to forgo Cascade Conference pandemic-shortened seasons in early December.

“We would have played if we had gotten the nod earlier,” SOU head coach Charlie Hall said. “I thought that once we came back from Christmas break, had been able to get in our weight room and basically start our training campaign leading up to March, I thought we could pull this off. But, here we are, we’ve been back (on campus) since Jan. 4 and we haven’t been in our weight room, It’s been very limited in what we can do.”

Friday’s decision came 48 hours after Gov. Kate Brown announced that the Oregon Health Authority will be revising guidelines amid a decrease of COVID-19 cases around the state that would clear the way for the return of outdoor contact sports.

While the announcement opened the door for football to return for high schools around the state based on the county-specific risk levels and protocols, Brown stated that colleges at the Division II, Division III and NAIA levels would have to submit health and safety plans for the possible resumption of full-contact sports.

“All such (college) teams must still meet the same rigorous standards that Oregon’s Division I programs have met before they will be permitted to resume full activities — including regular COVID-19 testing, plans for contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine, and health and safety protocols for practices and games,” Brown said Wednesday.

SOU, along with the Cascade Conference, submitted a safety protocol plan to the governor’s office in September, according to Sayre, but didn’t receive any sort of response, leaving the athletic department in a holding pattern in terms of the resumption of full-contact sports.

SOU has been testing its athletes for COVID-19 once a week since they returned to campus for the winter term the first week of January as part of “Return to Play” protocols put into place by both the Cascade and Frontier conferences.

“We felt very secure in our testing and our protocols and our ability to move forward with our student-athletes,” Sayre said. “It just needed the go-ahead as far as contact sports.”

In recent weeks, Hall expressed his concern about whether the Raiders would have enough time to ramp up to a season opener if they were not given clearance by Gov. Brown’s office and the OHA to conduct full-contact practices. Hall, whose team went 4-7 in the 2019 season, knew that a decision would have had to be made in the coming weeks since the first day of preseason camp allowed by the Frontier Conference was fast approaching.

The main hurdle has been SOU’s inability to practice the way they needed to with a season just a few weeks away, with most of their workouts being conducted in small groups. The most the Raiders could do, Hall said, was have practices essentially be like walk-throughs, working on the team’s passing offense and defense without any kind of contact.

The Raiders have not had full-contact conditions since their 2019 season finale on Nov. 16, 2019, against Montana Western.

“I feel like a four-game season would have been similar to what we typically do in the spring from a contact standpoint,” Hall said.

The plan in the immediate future is to conduct as much of a prototypical spring training camp as possible, Hall said.

“It’s inconceivable for us to be prepared from a player safety standpoint and a competitive balance standpoint that’s really fair to our program,” Hall said. “It’s in our best interest not to play (this spring) and really get prepared for the 2021 fall season on our own terms when we’re allowed to practice, allowed to have contact or how to get back into our weight room. We’re looking forward to that opportunity.”

Hall didn’t rule out getting in contact with some of the other small college football programs from around the state to try and make something happen this spring once they do have clearance to have full-contact competition.

“It doesn’t have to be a full-fledged game,” Hall said, “but just to play somebody that we’re not used to playing like a Western Oregon, like a Linfield, some of these used to be awesome rivalries in the old Columbia Football League or however far back you want to go in your NAIA history books. To be able to have a structured practice that’s controlled so that our kids are hitting another person before we get into fall competition, that’s important for us.”

Hall said he feels the most for the seniors who never had the chance to play a full 10-game schedule in the fall of 2020 due to so much uncertainty over the past year. Even with the NAIA extending an extra year of eligibility for seniors as a result of the pandemic throwing everything askew, Hall has previously said he’s not sure how many players who would have played their last downs as a collegiate football player this past fall will choose to come back.

“It’s mixed,” Hall said of the players’ reaction to Friday’s decision. “I think there’s a big sense of disappointment and a sense of frustration because the can kept getting kicked along the way. I don’t know how many times we’ve had to move the goal posts and move the start time. The on-again, off-again reality was tough for them. It was just too little, too late.”

Reach Danny Penza at dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Southern Oregon linebacker Jake Regino (44) attempts a tackle during an Oct. 26, 2019, game against the College of Idaho at Raider Stadium in Ashland. SOU announced Friday that it is opting out of the Frontier Conference’s 2021 spring season. (PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR)