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Athletes glad games won't be taken away by a strike

To say student-athletes in the Medford School District went through a roller-coaster ride last week would be an understatement.

With a teacher's strike looming, the high school sports scene went from moving forward with limited impact to being totally wiped away and, finally, back to where it all started if the walkout occurs Thursday morning.

Thankfully, cooler heads have prevailed — and hopefully that's a good sign as negotiations continue today between representatives for the school district and teacher's union. But for Medford teenagers like Julian Gray, Aaron Browne-Moore and Ashley Bolston, last week was tense.

"At first it was more of a shock to me and I couldn't believe it when they said we'd have to forfeit games if the teachers went on strike," said Browne-Moore, a senior boys basketball player at North Medford. "Anything that happens like that in your life just always hits you hard right away. After a little bit of thinking, it became more of a personal insult than just like something happening around me. It's my senior year and I can't redo any of this. I can't come back and become a super-senior or anything so it was really upsetting."

Bolston, a senior on the top-ranked South Medford girls basketball team, said the sudden decision to potentially take games away from athletes in the Medford district just didn't make sense.

"I don't know why they would've taken the games from us, we're not going on strike," said Bolston. "Making us go to school and not letting us play didn't really make sense so I'm glad they changed their mind."

A good part of that turnaround came from a groundswell of parents, community members and even students like Browne-Moore calling district officials and imploring administrators like Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long to reconsider the decision to cancel all athletics in the event of a strike.

"I'm sure Phil Long has gotten a lot of angry voice mails," Browne-Moore said late Friday night. "I left him a more kind one, in my opinion of course, but I wanted him to know how important this decision was for people like me."

Earlier on Friday, Long announced a change of heart by the administration that was welcome news and received a good ovation when reiterated during the boys basketball game against Grants Pass.

"Athletics are a vital part of our community, and we're glad to be able to find a way to keep the high school program going in spite of the possibility of a strike," Long said in a news release. "We hope our community will come support our high school student athletes. We're committed to doing everything we can to keep the majority of our programs going while we try to negotiate an agreement."

Middle school sports and all other extracurricular activities, including music and theater events, will still be canceled in the event of a strike.

"I'm extremely ecstatic," Gray, a senior boys basketball player at North, said of not having to forfeit games. "It's an awesome feeling to know that my senior season can keep going and it just gives more motivation to practice harder and cherish school more. We may have half days or 90-kid classes or whatever if there is a strike, but we've just got to try to get through it the best way we can."

North Medford athletic director Tim Sam said the high schools have received district approval to carry on their complete athletic schedules — from the freshman to varsity levels — with no modifications in the event of a strike.

Sam said there may be a need for adjusted practice and game times depending on the rumored usage of half days for middle school and high school students — since they will share the same respective venues at North and South high schools — but that seemed unlikely.

The biggest impact by a strike on local sports is that union members will have to make a decision if they want to cross the picket line or not in order to coach.

In the winter sports season, North Medford has three union members as coaches in girls basketball head coach Tim Karrick, girls basketball assistant Aaron Rayburn and wrestling assistant Noah Berman. At South Medford, union members who are also coaches include boys basketball head coach Dennis Murphy, wrestling head coach Greg Bryant, assistant wrestling coach Tom Kephart and swimming head coach Robyn Schiffer.

If a strike occurs and none of the union members opt to cross the picket line, Sam said there will be provisions in place to ensure the teams can move on appropriately.

"Through assistant coaches and/or volunteer coaches that will be OSAA certified, just like any coach has to be, they'll fill in and pick up the slack if indeed the union members aren't coaching," said Sam.

North Medford freshman girls coach Brian Adolph has been in the program for over a decade and JV coach Krysten Copeland provides another capable option among a handful of ways the Black Tornado could go in the event Karrick and Rayburn are unavailable.

Murphy, who also serves as South Medford's athletic director, was unavailable for comment but the assumption is that non-union assistants and/or volunteers would also be looked at to step in for the Panthers in the event of a strike.

For boys basketball, varsity assistants Rick Jackson and Kirk Daley each have head coaching experience and assistants Mike Vanderhoff and James Wightman are well-versed in the Panthers system. Former wrestling head coach Dave Alonzo, who has remained on staff with Bryant, would be a viable option in that sport but it's unclear what direction the swimming program would take.

Union members are not supposed to be on district property during the time of a strike, according to Sam, so when it comes to practices at North or South, that means only non-union members can be in attendance. However, there are no such issues if practices take place off Medford School District sites. Kids Unlimited, the YMCA, Southern Oregon University or even facilities at other school districts potentially could allow union members to at least maintain some role with their respective teams during a strike.

"It's not something anybody wants to happen," Sam said Friday of the need for contingency plans, whether it's for coaches or practice sites. "I'm going to go home and pray tonight to wake up and read the paper that we're not on strike and we get to go to work and do the things we love doing for kids. I know both sides feel the same way. What I feel is we've just got to find common ground to get this thing over with and move on for kids' sake."

Sam said he has been inundated by what-if questions from many North Medford students and parents and other interested adults, and he hasn't been able to provide many answers beyond simply asking for all to keep a positive mindset. The move to make sure the sporting schedules go on as planned was a helpful step.

"Kids shouldn't get caught in the middle of something that adults are trying to figure out," added Sam. "We all found a way to keep athletics and keep kids from getting caught in the middle, and I feel great about that."

Ramifications for forfeited games could've been great for the basketball teams, highlighted by the South Medford's girls bid for a third straight appearance in the Class 6A state championship game. With power rankings such a big part of the playoff picture and bracketing, forfeits could have lowered their rating and even if the strike was short-lived and also would've had a trickle down effect on the Southern Oregon Hybrid schools outside Medford, since your opponent's winning percentage is part of the equation.

"It would've definitely dropped us in the state rankings and could've jeopardized our play-in games if they didn't let us play those if (a strike) was still going on," said Bolston. "It's real important to get the two play-in games at home if you can. Nobody plays better on the road."

For wrestling and swimming, which have district events coming soon, there was an even tighter window of concern. And had neither Medford school been able to participate, that could've ultimately tipped the scale at state tournaments as Crater, Roseburg and Grants Pass reaped the benefits in their absence.

Thankfully, none of those issues will surface.

Browne-Moore echoed the sentiments of Gray and Bolston when he discussed how meaningful it is to be granted this second chance.

"It definitely makes me want to drive harder for what our team's going for," said Browne-Moore, whose team is No. 8 in the 6A coaches poll. "It got taken away from us and I felt how bad it was without it even if it was just for a couple days. Now it's given back to me and I want to continue that passion and inspiration I had for it before even more now."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry