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Teams remain hopeful despite uncertain fall future

From the playing fields and gymnasiums across the Rogue Valley, there exists a remarkable sense of optimism among fall sports athletes and coaches despite one setback after another as it relates to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Each day begins anew with the promise of a potential return to competitive play for the 2020-21 school year, at least that was the sentiment shared Wednesday by a handful of local coaches.

“I’m always an optimistic guy so I’m looking on the positive side of things,” said North Medford football coach Steve Turner. “Obviously it’s been difficult for us to proceed, but I’m not one of those sky’s falling types of people.”

If anyone has the right to drown in their sorrows it would be football coaches like Turner, who find themselves on the outside looking in after Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority prohibited their sport from play due to its full-contact nature.

That status, shared by cheerleading and dance and drill, remained intact last week when the Oregon School Activities Association announced the state would be delaying the start of the fall sports season in cross country, soccer and volleyball for a month to Sept. 23.

Worse yet, even OSAA executive director Peter Weber noted last week that no insight had been given by the state on factors that would allow for a removal of restrictions and enable those full-contact activities to come off the prohibited list.

Unless something changes here in the next two weeks, that would mean an end to football training Aug. 14, according to Fred Kondziela, assistant director of human resources for the Medford School District.

Still, Turner remains upbeat as his players undergo offseason training in the weight room and practice field. He said more than 100 athletes, be it in football, basketball, wrestling or baseball, have been streaming into the North Medford weight room in pods of 10 during morning and evening sessions, adhering to social distancing and other safety protocols put in place statewide.

“There’s been so many changes since all this started,” said Turner. “Every couple weeks it seems like there’s something different so until I get a final statement about what’s really going to happen then I’m looking at it like we’re going to be able to play.”

The OSAA is expected to reconvene Monday to address whether it has the proper plan in place for the fall and beyond, and the governor may have put a monkey wrench into those optimistic plans with Tuesday’s release of metrics that need to be met before any county can reopen for any form of in-person learning, be it daily or through a hybrid setup.

That decision led the Medford School District to perform an about-face Tuesday and announce it would be adopting virtual learning only in grades 4 through 12 to begin the school year.

Before schools will be approved for reopening to older elementary, middle and high school students, their counties must see a weekly new case rate at or below 10 per 100,000 residents for three straight weeks. In addition, the weekly test positivity rate in the county must remain at or below 5% for three weeks in a row.

The state of Oregon as a whole must also see 5% or less of tests returning positive each week for three straight weeks for any districts to reopen, and the case rate in the county also cannot be at or over 30 new cases per 100,000 in the preceding seven days for three weeks straight.

“I actually like that the governor put some stipulations on opening schools because up to this point we didn’t have any,” said Turner. “Now we have the metrics and it’s up to all of us to make sure we meet those metrics so we can get back to school and back to playing sports.”

It’s worth noting that the spring sports season this past school year was canceled by the OSAA in part because there was no in-person learning taking place statewide due to the governor’s mandate. Basically, the thought was that if it is not safe to have kids at school then it’s also not safe to have kids at school taking part in extracurricular activities.

“As far as what the governor announced yesterday, I think that throws a little bit more concern into the formula,” said South Medford girls soccer coach Dave Potter. “If we have to meet all those standards and we have to go through all the steps that she spelled out, I think it probably diminishes our chance of opening school. And then the next question is will the OSAA support the activities and athletics if the kids aren’t in school. Will they be able to compete and do the things they love to do if online learning is what’s required? There’s still some questions with that and concerns, but we’ve got our fingers crossed.”

One sentiment echoed by local coaches Wednesday was their trust in the good-faith efforts being put forth by Weber and all the OSAA committees as they navigate a tricky situation.

“I think Peter Weber and the OSAA has done an awesome job of handling a lot of emotion from a lot of different people and trying to make sure they don’t make a knee-jerk decision,” said North Medford cross country and track coach Piet Voskes. “They’re trying to do what’s in the best interest of kids throughout the state.”

Added Potter: “They’re not rushing and trying to give it a chance because the virus and all the impacts and effects of it are developing day by day, things just change so fast. Right now I feel really good about the OSAA keeping the door open to us. They could have already shut it down very easily and I think they’re just giving us every chance we could possibly get to keep our hopes up.”

While keeping those hopes up hasn’t always been easy for local coaches and athletes, it’s all they’ve really been able to cling to in a world of unknowns.

“It’s weird to not have any control over so many things in your life,” said Crater volleyball coach Megan Dunn. “We can’t plan for anything so we’re just trying to plan as much as you can for the next week. I just wish we had more of a solid answer but that’s not where we are right now.”

When it comes to training for the fall, each program has had to adapt during the pandemic and put its best foot forward no matter what that entails.

“I’ve been telling the girls that every obstacle is an opportunity,” said Dunn. “Just because there are these restrictions on how we play doesn’t mean we can’t play at all and that you can’t make the most of it. If you’re not training then you’re not progressing in your sport, so just keep at it no matter what is thrown our way.”

Still, the guidelines can be challenging.

“Standing 6 feet apart there’s only so many drills you can do,” she added, “and with groups of 10 there’s only so many drills you can do there, too. But we’re making the most of it and I’m just extremely happy that they can play right now and they’re still able to work on their skill and they’re not totally set back by having a canceled season at this point. We don’t know what the future holds but I’m hopeful that they can continue to play in some capacity.”

Potter and his Panthers carry that same thankful approach to even being able to train these days.

The veteran soccer coach, who guided prominent boys and girls programs at South Medford and St. Mary’s, happily retired from coaching in 2018 but was drawn back to the pitch in an effort to help South Medford principal Donnie Frazier and a group of Panther girls who had seen a revolving door of coaches over the last few years.

To say Potter and the South Medford girls are relishing their opportunities right now would be an understatement.

“If the mood was any better and the positive vibes were any greater than they are now, I would think I had died and gone to heaven,” said Potter. “This group of girls were so hungry when i started with them to do soccer, to do something positive and get back together that it has been nothing but a positive experience for 16 training sessions so far this summer — and they’re asking for more. They are working diligently and have Inspired me and impressed me beyond belief.”

While Potter remains 50-50 on whether there will be a soccer season this fall or it will potentially be moved to the winter or spring of 2021, his hope would be that the OSAA at least allows for training to continue throughout the rest of the year for the kids’ sake.

“They would be hurt and devastated to find out they weren’t going to get to play at all this year,” he said, “but they would still want to train because they love the sport, they love the social aspect of it and they like the idea of doing something productive and getting fit and all those positives that go along with school activities.”

Dunn agreed, but took it one step further. She said she would lean toward volleyball being pushed back until 2021 if that ensured a full season of competition for her girls.

Then, showing how tricky the issue is, Dunn almost immediately recanted her wishes.

“I’d prefer that personally because then we might not have the situation where we’re two weeks into the season this fall and then it gets canceled because so many people get COVID,” said Dunn. “I’d rather have it in the spring where hopefully things are a little more understood, but that would take away their offseason and their club season. Looking at the big picture, it’s tough to make these changes without losing something.”

All that truly matters, though, is that the athletes don’t lose everything, as was the case for three months after the state essentially shut down in mid-March.

“My concern is that these kids get an entire year taken away from them,” said Dunn. “I can only imagine where I’d be in life if one year of my athletic career in high school was taken away.”

“Sports in general is just such an important aspect of an athlete’s life, beyond just having fun playing a game,” she added. “It’s a career for some and helps them build their future in so many more ways than one. If I didn’t get a scholarship to college, I would not be where I’m at today, and I’m pretty happy with how my life has turned out. I owe that so much to volleyball and to being a college athlete, so all of this is just so frustrating and saddening in many ways.”

Voskes said his biggest focus has been keeping his runners motivated without misleading them about the trials and tribulations moving forward.

North Medford’s athletes have been training independently and submitting running logs, but that situation varies among other programs who have adopted 6-foot protocols and the usage of bandanas or masks for protection.

Few have been more proactive during the pandemic than the cross country coaches in this region, spearheaded by efforts from Crater’s Justin Loftus and Phoenix’s John Cornet.

With Eugene-area schools uninterested in traveling this fall, according to Voskes, the local coaches have come together to try and structure a season that involves strictly local competition amid hopes of potential big district and state meets.

“It’s traveling across town, it’s virtual meets, it’s running where each team starts five minutes behind each other,” said Voskes. “It’s just about creatively coming up with solutions so kids get an opportunity to compete. Ultimately it’s a guessing game at this point but we wanted to be proactive and be able to present something tangible to parents, kids and athletic directors.”

“We’re just trying to get away from what we used to do,” he added, “and come up with ways that kids can have an experience, stay motivated and, more importantly from a running perspective, still enjoy the sport of cross country and feel it hasn’t been tainted in any way for them.”

With runners in packs, often breathing over the other’s shoulder, cross country offers its own set of intangibles that may need to be altered this year to fit protocols.

“If you look at the best programs in the valley over the years,” said Voskes, “they’ve all been teams whose kids have run very close to each other in races and they practice close to each other and there’s a sense of team, and now we’re trying to get rid of that. It’s a weird thing where we’re vacillating back and forth between emphasizing team and now re-emphasizing individuality and having kids try to separate from their teammates. It’s tricky. All of this is very tricky.”

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

Ashland and Crater cross country runners take the lead in the early stages of last year's Class 5A state meet. Due to the close nature of the sport, social distancing requirements will call for a very different look at meets this year. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
North Medford defensive backs Devin Bradd (2) and Chance Costanzo (18) collide with Sheldon wideout Josh Loesch while trying to catch a Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half of last year's Southwest Conference football game. Football remains a prohibited sport for the fall season but coaches and players remain optimistic. MT file photo