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After quiet 2020, Rogue Memorial Challenge makes its return

The soccer fields at U.S. Cellular Community Park were quiet last Memorial Day weekend, a time of year when it’s usually the complete opposite.

That’s because, like so many other events in 2020, the annual Rogue Memorial Challenge was put on pause for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My birthday typically falls on the tournament weekend or during the setup, and last year it actually fell on the tournament weekend, so it was the first time in over a decade that I stayed home and celebrated with my family,” tournament organizer Kevin Primerano said with a laugh. “That being said, I missed (the tournament) tremendously, it didn’t feel right and there was definitely an emptiness. I was restless that entire weekend because I felt like we should be doing this tournament.”

Fret not. Memorial Day weekend soccer is back.

While 2020 might have meant that a staple of Memorial Day weekend in Southern Oregon was on hold, the tournament that sees competition from all over the West Coast come to Medford is back for its 2021 edition.

Starting Saturday and running through Monday, boys and girls soccer teams ranging from Under-10 to Under-19 age levels will take to fields all around Medford and provide another sign that life is slowly getting back to some sort of normalcy.

“It’s been a long year and the boys are really looking forward to it, that’s for sure,” said Rogue Valley Timbers 03B Red U19 head coach Scott Byrd. “It’s always been an important tournament to them, and they’re ready to get back to playing the game they know and have played for 10 or 12 years. It’s always important since it’s their hometown tournament and they want to play well.”

Trying to put together a tournament of this size has never been a simple task.

Throw in the fact that it’s during a time where COVID-19 restrictions continue to be always evolving and it’s easy to understand why Primerano describes the planning stages as rather stressful.

Even more than it can be in “regular” years.

The key, though, Primerano said, was to keep things as normal as they can be when it came to putting the 2021 tournament together.

“We’ve never, this entire year, done anything by sitting on our hands,” said Primerano, who also coaches the Rogue Valley Timbers 02G U19 girls team. “We’ve always moved forward expecting, whether it be getting our kids out there in the summer or wondering if there would be a fall season, that our philosophy was one of we’re going to push forward with the expectation that there’s going to be a fall season. That way we were ready to go when it happened and we wouldn’t be reactive — and the same thing goes with this tournament.

“We started the process at the regular time and planned as though the tournament was going to happen.”

The end result was a tournament field that, despite all of the outside factors related to the pandemic, Primerano said will be just as competitive as years past.

The tournament field is a bit smaller than two years ago, with 135 teams registered as compared to 155 in 2019, which was by design, according to Primerano. With fewer teams in the tournament, they were able to space out games a little bit more and prevent a lot of overlap between people coming and going at the fields.

Teams will play two games each on both Saturday and Sunday, with Monday serving as the championship round. Games will take place at the usual locations: U.S. Cellular, North Medford High School, South Medford High School, Spiegelberg Stadium, Jefferson Elementary School and Fichtner-Mainwaring Park.

“I think that the competition looks really good across the board,” Primerano said. “The U19 boys bracket looks dynamite. Across the board, I think the level of teams has increased with our lower numbers, and the level of competition has as well in most brackets.”

A staple of previous tournaments, the goalie wars competition, will not take place this year “due to occupancy restrictions,” according to the tournament website.

“It usually has about 2,000 people on the field up at North Medford and there was just obviously no way we were going to pull that off,” Primerano said. “That’s a little bit more than we’re allowed. It’s just not in the cards this year, but it will be back.”

Another twist that comes with this year’s tournament is that local players at the older levels are just a few weeks separated from the finish of their respective high school seasons.

It was just in mid-April when Rogue Valley Timbers teammates were playing against one another. Now, they’re back at the club level and looking to win a tournament title together.

Byrd is expecting the boys U19 bracket to be extremely competitive, one that features teams from Oregon, California and Nevada.

Phoenix standout Victor Martinez, who was named the Skyline Conference’s MVP this spring after scoring 24 goals in 12 games, will be the driving force in midfield for Byrd’s squad.

“He’s our engine in the midfield that transitions us from defense to offense,” Byrd said of Martinez. “Victor’s really a true footballer in the true sense of the word — he’s such a strong player, and since he’s just a junior he’s going to get a lot of looks. He’s the kind of guy in the middle of the park that makes us go.”

Martinez will be joined in the RVT midfield by Ashland’s Carson Pindell, who was voted the Southern Oregon Conference MVP this spring. Fellow Grizzly Gabe Giancarlo will be one of two goalkeepers used by Byrd, splitting time with Jude Pannell of South Medford.

In front of Giancarlo and Pannell, the North-South duo of Braden Byrd and Peyton Terry will play at the heart of the RVT defense. Cascade Christian’s Jonny McCoy will be one of RVT’s main options in attack.

“We’ve got some who can mix it up and make things happen, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do,” Scott Byrd said.

The RVT 02G Red U19 girls will also see quality competition from regular in-state rivals as well as Northern California teams out of the Sacramento area.

RVT has a number of players who will be playing college soccer come the fall. South Medford’s Rainie Dabbs, the SOC MVP, is set to go to UC Santa Cruz. A pair of Grants Pass seniors will also be key for Primerano’s squad: Casey Park, who’s set to play at Central Washington, and goalkeeper Sam Borngasser, one of the Cavers’ heroes in the SOC tournament final win over South Medford who is set to play at Willamette.

North Medford’s Taylor Denn has signed with Division I Abilene Christian, while her Black Tornado teammate Sophie Elam is set to play at Cal Tech.

“We haven’t been able to work with them all that much, but they came back in shape and obviously they all played for some great high school coaches,” Primerano said. “We’re just trying to do the best we can with the circumstances that we’ve been dealt.”

Following last year’s tournament being canceled, the RVT coaches can tell that the 2021 edition has a little bit more meaning to their players.

They not only want to try and win it all, but they want to represent at their hometown tournament.

And after a year of so many things being completely out of their hands and totally unpredictable, getting the chance to play in a tournament many have competed in since they were youngsters is something they welcome with open arms.

“This tournament means so much to our kids, to our club and to our community, and I kind of see it as a turning point and there’s a feeling of recovery from this point forward,” Primerano said. “Maybe it’s the flash point for the return to normalcy. We’re just looking forward to getting this one in the books and each day after is just one step toward getting our kids back to the normal stuff without some of the restrictions we’ve had to deal with.”

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

Phoenix's Victor Martinez, seen here during a game this past spring, will be one of the well-known local talents playing at this weekend’s Rogue Memorial Challenge. (Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune)