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Spring into ... isolation? What's next for athletes, coaches, OSAA during hiatus

When the news broke Friday that Oregon’s spring sports athletes and coaches would have to put their season plans on hold, it left a pretty obvious question to all: What do we do now?

From athletes to coaches to administrators, the answer to that comes in many forms and none of them are optimal, they’re just what there is at this point.

With the Oregon School Activities Association’s decision to suspend practices and contests through March 31, in conjunction with school closures in that span per orders from Gov. Kate Brown, that meant all facilities would be closed to spring squads and, essentially, they were on their own until a final decision on the season’s fate is determined at a later date.

“It’s bizarre times,” said North Medford track coach Piet Voskes. “It’s not conventional. It requires a lot of adaptation by kids, by parents, by coaches. Both training adaptation and kind of an emotional readjustment because there’s just so much uncertainty right now.”

Coming off the heels of a decision Thursday to cancel in-progress Class 6A, 5A and 4A boys and girls basketball tournaments, OSAA executive director Peter Weber said the decision to suspend the spring season did not come easy but believed it was the correct thing to do at this time to help slow the transmission of the coronavirus.

“The last 48 hours have been by far the most interesting in my career, I’ll tell you that,” Weber said Friday after the spring sports decision. “It’s unbelievable.”

“The whole thing is difficult,” he added. “Being around the state championships and seeing all the hard work and commitment these kids and coaches have put into it and the decision to cancel the basketball and the dance and drill show, those are not easy decisions. We understand the impact it has on kids and it’s just disheartening.”

Part of that is why the OSAA opted to only suspend the spring sports season and not simply cancel it outright.

As bad as things currently may be, all those involved with the third high school sports season of the school year — originally slated to begin Monday — appreciate that the door at least remains open to hopefully compete again come April.

“I really hope that after March 31 we just get right back into it,” said St. Mary’s junior Baylee Hammericksen. “I hope that things kind of die down and get better so that we can return to normalcy a little bit, in a sense.”

“I don’t even want to think about the rest of season being canceled, that thought is just too daunting for me,” added the two-time Class 4A/3A/2A/1A state champion golfer. “I’m just trying to take it one step at a time and really just praying that it’s going to get better.”

While some may feel suspending the spring sports season may be too extreme, Medford School District athletic director and safety coordinator Amy Tiger said it’s absolutely the right course of action, especially considering the Rogue Valley’s volume of elderly, high-risk community members.

“In the last couple years if you think about the air quality and you think about this, the safety of athletes has really been put first and the safety of our communities has been put first,” said Tiger, “and I think that’s probably a change from the past. It’s the right thing to do but it’s sometimes hard for people when they have worked so hard for things. But it is the right thing to do moving forward.”

“You look in the stands at who is supporting all those teams most of the time,” added Tiger, “and we have a lot of elderly people that support our teams and come to games, a lot of grandparents and those things, so it really is important to keep everybody safe.”

But while one door was left open to continue competition, all others were closed in terms of access to school facilities and team practices.

“I didn’t think it was going to be this long of a delay,” said North Medford senior softball player Lauren Barry, “but I did think that a couple games would get canceled. I was pretty surprised that it will all get canceled for a couple weeks, including practice. That’s a tough one. Not being able to get together and practice is a big deal.”

* * *

Coaches and athletes were still pouring over how to handle the no team practice or use of facilities aspect of the suspension Friday, with some leaning on past history while others felt as if they were drawing things up in the dirt.

“This is kind of uncharted territory and we’ve just kind of got to roll with the punches and see what we’re able to do, if and when we can do something,” said Crater baseball coach Jay Campbell.

In that vein, the options appeared to favor those in spring sports like track and field, golf and tennis much more than baseball and softball, where facility usage is the crux of training.

“It’s just going to be hard not to be able to have an official practice with the coaches and have everything that we’re used to,” said Crater senior pitcher and first baseman Jacob Memmott. “Obviously, without the field, you can’t really work on what you’re used to doing. For pitching practice, you really need a mound and you need different people to be able to play catch with. If you can’t have big groups and you can’t have that stuff readily available with what’s going on, it’s definitely going to be harder to get stuff done to the degree that you want to.”

That’s not to say things are perfect in the track, golf or tennis realm, just maybe a tad easier to make an adjustment.

“For us it’s not as big of an issue that I think it is for a lot of sports like softball and baseball,” said Voskes. “We went through this eight or nine years ago when the Medford School District had a two-week spring break. We pulled a lot of those files and said, ‘OK, how did we structure this?’ The only unusual part now is not having an actual facility to use and asking kids to creatively do the workouts on their own.”

Voskes and his assistant coaches have created a Google classroom for the North Medford track and field athletes to utilize during the hiatus. Each athlete has a code to enter and find event-specific workouts they can do from home, as well as a way to communicate effectively with their coaches during the suspension.

“It’s our way of making sure kids can continue to work outside the confines of the track but know that there is still a level of compassion from the coaches in providing them information as we move forward,” said Voskes.

“Basically we’ve just moved practice,” he added. “We’ve relocated to your garage, to your driveway, to the hill down the street ... giving the kids an opportunity to train, I guess, Rocky-style for two weeks.”

That works just fine for someone like Jaida Ross, who will be vying for a third state title in the Class 6A girls shot put should she get the chance for the Black Tornado.

“I live in kind of a nice little area with hills,” said the senior, “so I can sprint hills for explosive power and do little workouts and go to the gym and stuff like that. What’s cool about being a thrower instead of being a sprinter is you get to work on a lot of footwork so you don’t actually need the implements to continue training. There are easy footwork drills that you can do literally anywhere.”

Hammericksen shared the same optimism for her ability to stay dialed in and ready for a return to action despite the layoff.

“Even though as a team I cannot practice under a high school practice scenario,” she said, “I still have access to both Rogue Valley Country Club and Centennial Golf Club so I will be practicing on my own, with some extra precautions. I’ll be bringing hand sanitizer, cleaning down the clubs, washing the bag and stuff like that. But beyond that, I’m still going to be out there at the golf course doing my own thing and practicing.”

It’s a position she cherishes but also almost feels guilty for having compared to her sporting peers.

“I feel so lucky that I’m able to even go out,” said Hammericksen. “They haven’t shut down the golf courses yet, knock on wood and crossing my fingers. I go to school with baseball and track athletes and they’re so sad that the beginning of their season has already been cut short and they can’t even really go out and practice. Maybe track athletes can do a little bit by going into a gym or running somewhere, but a lot of people playing baseball are like, well it’s over, I can’t do anything for a month besides maybe conditioning on my own.”

That helpless feeling hasn’t been lost on Campbell, who can’t help but nervously enter this break.

“It’s hard to really replicate baseball actions or moves if you don’t have the facility or the equipment or the area to do it,” said the baseball coach. “One of my main concerns right now is just the health of the kids’ arms and pitchers in general. Now that we were able to start earlier with the new rules, we have kids in relatively good shape. To take 19 days off where we can’t do anything, that’s a long time to be off and stay in baseball shape.”

Memmott and Barry echoed that their main goals during the suspension were simply to work on maintaining their fitness level, work on as many skill drills as they can minus facilities and keep hope alive that come April they find themselves back on a diamond again.

Crater’s baseball team is ranked sixth, with Ashland ninth, in the Class 5A baseball preseason rankings, while North Medford’s softball team is No. 8 in the 6A softball preseason rankings, Crater is ninth at the 5A level and Cascade Christian second at the 3A level.

“Anywhere I can be and anything I can do, I’ll do it,” said Barry, “and I’m confident my teammates will be doing the same thing so that we can all just pick up where we left off. We put so much time in during the offseason that I think we’ll all just pick it right back up. Our goal is to get to the state championship game so I think everyone will be more than ready and excited to come back, whenever that may be.”

* * *

While it may not seem like much, Voskes said the prevailing hope for better days and the freedom to play again is a big thing for teenagers who associate almost entirely with who they become when they don a uniform.

“I think we’re still in a position where we can keep kids motivated because it’s a postponement or a pause in their season at this point,” he said. “That alone is a tremendous thing.”

“Athletics is kind of a warm blanket for kids,” added Voskes. “It gives them a drive for the day, and for many kids it gets them through the school day. It’s who they are, it’s their identity and to a certain degree some of that has been removed. Hopefully temporarily, but there’s larger ramifications here.”

“Kids work really hard and they identify themselves as an athlete, it doesn’t matter what the sport is, and they’re a little bit lost right now. Right now we’re ESPN without anything to show; they’re an athlete without any way to demonstrate it.”

For many spring sports athletes, the ramifications from a potentially lost season could be long-lasting.

Maybe a senior like North Medford’s Jane Ersepke, who is chasing her school’s long jump record, misses out on realizing a dream of putting her name alongside some of the best to have ever competed at the school.

More important, the underclassmen who are hoping to draw attention from collegiate programs and hopefully extend their playing days could miss valuable time to shine.

“A lot of our juniors are in that position where they have plans to run in college and compete,” said Voskes, “and they’re in a little bit of this nebulous moment where it’s, ‘OK, what happens to my marks? Who do I show my stuff to if there’s nothing to show?’”

Elite Ashland runner EJ Holland joined Ross in cementing their future plans by signing in the fall to compete at the University of Oregon and as excited as each were back then, the feeling has doubled knowing an anticipated senior season is in doubt.

“I’m very, very lucky and happy that I made my decision last year,” said Ross, “because I was going to plan on kind of dragging it out a little bit into the spring. I’m glad I made my decision because thinking about this year now, waiting wouldn’t have been optimal, especially with all this that’s happening.”

As it is, Ross has enough on her plate these days as she wraps up her associate’s degree as a Logos Public Charter School senior who is dual enrolled at Rogue Community College. While her teammates will be out of school through March, like so many other college students, Ross has had to deal with the uncertainties of going through finals week testing and what her schooling may look like in the future.

“I’m ready for my finals, that’s not a problem,” she said confidently, “but right now I’ve gotten a few emails talking about switching to online options to finish finals and then seeing where we’re at from there after spring break.”

* * *

While it may not be as visibly active as those athletes filling up local gyms and parks or running down your street, the work will be equally as taxing for administrators like Weber, Tiger and company in the coming weeks.

It’s one thing to suspend a season, it’s another to weigh future options to determine how an abbreviated season would work and whether such action should even be taken given the current climate as the world strives to contain the coronavirus.

“We have a number of events that will be impacted (by the OSAA’s spring sports suspension),” said Weber. “I think what comes to mind for a lot of people with spring sports is track, baseball, softball and things like that — which are true — but we have a number of activities that are right now in the throws of qualifying events like our speech, choir, band and orchestra and solo music activities.”

“Those are all happening over the next four to six weeks in terms of their qualifying events and our state championships,” he added. “What does all that look like consulting with our venues and obviously working with our schools? Are we able to continue as is or do we need to make adjustments, qualifying changes, cutoff date changes? Those are all questions that remain to be answered that we’ll be working on with staff and schools.”

Weber said that unquestionably it is his hope that all the OSAA’s sports and activities resume “as regular as regular will be here in a couple weeks,” but no one will truly know the direction to take without steady conversations about medical safety during that span.

“Everything’s fluid,” said Tiger, who expects to follow the OSAA’s lead during the suspension. “If you think about how much has changed just in the last couple days, things could continue to change as we move forward into the next week or so. We’ll just have to play things out moving forward and see from there.”

Weber said the plan of action will be to continue ongoing discussions with the OSAA’s executive board members, who are superintendents and principals from around the state, as well as with schools that may not be already represented and, of course, its own sports medicine advisory committee, led by chairman Dr. Michael Koester, and contacts within the Oregon Health Authority.

“One nice thing through all of this struggle and all these different things that people are trying to come up with, there’s been a ton of collaboration, which has been wonderful,” said Weber. “People have their areas of expertise and certainly we’re relying a lot on the medical people right now. But being able to work closely with our school administrators and get their feedback on what it’s like on the ground in their districts, that will help us make those next determinations if we’re able, hopefully, to continue with spring sports as we go and what does that look like.”

For coaches like Voskes and Campbell, the layoff will be less about meetings and more about how to fill their unexpected available time in March, where family and free time typically is at a minimum.

“I’m already feeling for my wife,” Campbell said with a laugh. “I think she kind of looks forward to me not being around so much this time of year.”

Added Voskes in similar joking fashion: “When they finally say mow the lawn, I have no choice now. I have no default.”

And that’s the one area where Campbell may (or may not depending on your view) have it over his coaching peers. Baseball and softball coaches have been given permission to continue upkeep on their playing fields during the suspension since a two-week hiatus would create quite a messy scene upon their return.

“Our field should be in pretty good shape by the time everybody comes back,” chuckled Campbell.

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

North Medford softball senior Lauren Barry
North Medford track and field senior Jaida Ross