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Locals 'devastated' but understand decision to suspend season

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Mail Tribune’s two-part series on the suspension of the spring sports season will be online Saturday and in Sunday's newspaper. The second part breaks down how local athletes and coaches, as well as the OSAA and school officials, plan to make the best use of the next two weeks before returning to the issue of when and if the games will go on.

Jaida Ross and Baylee Hammericksen each have state championship streaks they really hope to extend this spring sports season.

Players like Jacob Memmott and Lauren Barry have been practicing with an extra pep in their step for a few weeks now in pursuit of living up to — and hopefully beyond — expectations that come from their respective teams landing on preseason top-10 lists.

Like a flash Friday morning, all were sent into a tailspin with the rest of their peers after the Oregon School Activities Association announced that it was suspending practices and contests for all sports and activities throughout the state beginning immediately through March 31.

“I am absolutely devastated,” said Ross, a North Medford High senior set to open her quest for a third state title in the Class 6A girls shot put when the spring season was scheduled to begin Monday.

“My heart just hurts for everyone,” she added. “It’s just a lot to process. The whole (Black Tornado track and field) team is kind of just like, what just happened? I feel horrible for everyone, all the way up the collegiate level where they had their seasons canceled already. This is just awful.”

The OSAA’s action was prompted by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s decree for statewide school closures during the same March 16-31 time period, essentially extending spring break for an extra week in an effort to help slow the transmission of the coronavirus.

While most of the athletes and coaches saw the unfortunate news coming, they were still taken aback when the news finally filtered out Friday morning.

“Even though you hear about all these college sports and high school sports in other states being canceled,” said Hammericksen, “there’s always that thought it won’t happen to us, no way it happens to us, and then all of a sudden it does happen and it’s so disheartening when it impacts you.”

A two-time reigning state champion in girls golf for St. Mary’s High at the Class 4A/3A/2A/1A level, Hammericksen is one of many who have been chomping at the bit to get their spring campaign underway.

“Becoming an upperclassmen and looking to defend that state title for a fifth time as a team and third time as an individual, “ said the junior standout, “you really want to get out there and work with your team. But I’m also trying to keep in perspective that this is a really big issue and a lot of people have been suffering as an effect to this disease; just giving up that team aspect for a month or so is the least I can do.”

That sentiment carried over for all four athletes Friday, which is exactly what was the hope from OSAA executive director Peter Weber when he made the official decision, as well as for local administrators like Amy Tiger.

“We have young people who will have to work and temper expectations,” said Tiger, the athletic director and safety coordinator for the Medford School District, “but at the end of the day, the most important part is the safety of our community, so we’re going to do those things that keep our community safe.”

The decision to delay the spring season comes on the heels of a frantic change of pace this week that saw the OSAA move from banning all non-essential people from the state’s basketball tournaments at the Class 6A, 5A and 4A levels late Wednesday night to canceling the events entirely Thursday morning.

That left many athletes, coaches, administrators and fans understandably angry, including those here at South Medford and Crater high schools.

The Panther girls, who played Oregon’s final game of the season in front of fans late Wednesday, had reached the Class 6A state semifinals for the first time since 2014. Crater’s boys and girls teams had each advanced to the 5A state semifinals, marking the first time that had ever happened in the same year for the Comets.

“I’m still kind of feeling bad for the South girls,” said Tiger, echoing the sentiments Crater athletic director David Heard offered up for his school’s programs Friday. “They worked hard to get to that spot, but, at the end of the day, this is something bigger and a reminder that sports are an important part but it’s not the most important part of all of our lives.”

Then again, when you’re a teenager, any shift in opportunity is tough to swallow.

“It’s my senior year and that’s definitely the last thing you want is to not be able to play your last year of baseball in high school,” said Memmott, a senior pitcher and first baseman at Crater High.

“I definitely feel that it kind of sucks that all the work we put in during the offseason can just end like that, at the snap of a finger,” he added. “That really relates to the basketball team on how they made it to state and just like that their season is over without getting the opportunity. I just hope it doesn’t happen to us.”

That’s the one caveat to the OSAA’s decision Friday, it left the door open for potential sports seasons this spring, truncated as they may be.

“We have not made any decisions to cancel anything,” said Weber. “Beyond that, we’re going to use these next two weeks, just like our schools are, to evaluate the evolving situation and hopefully be able to make some decisions after that time.”

That potential left Barry and her North Medford softball teammates optimistic heading into a final team meeting Friday night before all were set to disperse and go their separate ways for a couple weeks.

“Obviously it’s pretty sad and devastating that we won’t be able to partake in our preseason,” said Barry, a four-year starter at shortstop, “but I feel like my teammates and I are all hopeful that we can still finish what we’ve started. We still have a lot of plans to make it to that championship game, if the season allows us to do it. We’re not giving up and we’re still going to work hard and still be doing the things we have been doing, although we can’t all practice together.”

As baseball players are prone to do, superstitious as they are, Memmott took his optimistic approach to another level for a resume to the spring season.

“I don’t even want to say we’re not going to play because I feel like if you say that then it’s going to happen,” he said cautiously. “I feel like I’m just going to keep my hope up that it will all get over because if it all started this fast, who knows, it can end super fast, too. I feel like we’ll be able to play baseball and at least we’ll have some season instead of no season.”

Although Ross and her peers are understandably upset, she hoped to start seeing more positive reactions on her social media platforms.

“I see a lot of blame going on now, things like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ and ‘Who’s to blame for shutting everything down?’” said Ross, “and I guess I just really want to emphasize that it’s for safety and people are really just doing their jobs and keeping the public safe. It sucks that it’s shutting down something that we love so much but it’s for everyone in the world so it’s really important.”

Added Hammericksen: “It’s really easy to just say, oh shoot, this is so unfamiliar and so horrible, but I’m really just trying to keep in perspective that I have it a lot better than some people do in regards to this virus and how it’s affecting people.”

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

North Medford senior Jaida Ross, shown in action last year, was set to compete for a third straight state championship in the Class 6A girls shot put and now her season is on hold. Like so many of her peers, Ross hopes the spring sports season will resume after the OSAA-mandated suspension of all practices and contests runs its course March 31.