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Local football coaches plan for fall passing league

The Southern Oregon Passing League, which typically involves local high school football programs every July, is looking to make its debut Sept. 24 if the football coaches have their way.

Spearheaded by Grants Pass head coach John Musser, the Southern Oregon football coaches met via Zoom this past Sunday to discuss particulars and received follow-up surveys Tuesday to help Musser compile a feasible schedule for 7-on-7 competitions each Thursday until a potential culminating final week at the beginning of November.

“I’ve had a handful of coaches already send back the survey so hopefully by the end of this week I’ll have a pretty good idea and start ironing it out,” said Musser. “I’ll take that information, we’ll slap together a mini-schedule and kind of let it roll for the fall.”

The Oregon Health Authority recently provided guidance for Season 1 of the Oregon School Activities Association schedule (Aug. 31-Dec. 27) that the state will allow schools with only distance learning to participate in certain sports activities, which is a change from this past spring when it required in-person learning before any sports activities could be played.

Although full-contact activities like football, basketball, wrestling and some forms of dance and cheer remain prohibited under state guidelines, among the modified activities that would be permitted in Season 1 is 7-on-7 football, which is akin to flag football and considered to be minimal/medium contact.

That ruling is what opened the door for the local football coaches, who have run 7-on-7 passing leagues for decades on Tuesday and Thursday nights in July and welcome the opportunity to compete in that manner again this fall.

“We’re going to treat the fall as though it’s just another four months of summer,” said Crater head coach Berk Brown. “We haven’t been able to organize these passing leagues up until recently because the OSAA finally came out with some guidelines and pointed us in a direction that we could run with.

“This is going to be something, I think, that’s pretty common this fall with groups typing to organize tournaments so that kids get an opportunity to show off their skills and get into a competitive environment so that they’re not just sitting at home playing Fortnite all night.”

The 7-on-7 skeleton drill setting doesn’t involve tackling or full-scale blocking, making it a favorite for skill position players like quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and defensive backs to hone their abilities.

“I’m a firm believer that it’s not football, it’s basketball on grass,” added Brown, “but at least it’s some type of football that we’re doing so I’m pretty excited about it. It gives our kids an opportunity to see the white’s of another team’s eyes, and that’s important.”

Still, Musser said the No. 1 priority will be maintaining all the protocols necessary to combat the potential spread of COVID-19.

“We’re not going to jump into this thing,” he said. “We’re going to give it some time to make sure we do it right. It’s not going to start up until the end of September. This is such a foreign land for all of us with distance learning, so we’re letting that kind of sort itself out and then we’ll begin our workout stuff toward the end of September.”

Per the Medford School District, all athletics will be on a dead period from Aug. 31 to Sept. 13 so the passing league really couldn’t start much earlier than it potentially will on Sept. 24. Each program is also still in the process of gaining administration approval to compete this fall after missing out on camps and passing leagues this summer.

“This fall is probably going to have more football skill development than we have had this summer, which is kind of the opposite of a normal year,” said Musser. “Usually in the summer it’s all about your skill development. You’re hitting the weights and doing some conditioning but you want to really hone in on those football skills, and we haven’t had that, so we’re going to be looking to do that more this fall for sure.”

This year’s passing league, however, will not look like the summer ones of the past due to the pandemic.

“It’s not like our normal summer stuff where eight different schools will get together at one place and we’ll divvy up,” said Musser. “It’s going to be that one opponent is going to travel to another opponent and go against that team. That would be for contact tracing and for controlling the environment a little better because there’s not going to be as many kids.”

Preliminary plans boast play on Thursday nights, with the Medford schools (North and South) joining along with Grants Pass, Crater and Eagle Point at the upper levels. Ashland has restricted offseason training to this point. Other lower level schools, be it Phoenix, Cascade Christian, St. Mary’s and others in the Grants Pass and Klamath Falls areas may also take part.

Beside limiting the number of teams in attendance, there will also be a limit to whether spectators can attend. Musser favors a plan that eliminates anyone in attendance beyond those teams participating.

“It’s not like summer where we can have people crawling over,” said Musser. “It’s going to be nobody in the stands and we’ve got to have game management there so every athletic department is going to have to kind of help us out and have some people there to make sure that people aren’t jumping fences or crawling around in the stadium to get in there.”

“You can imagine with nothing else going on,” he added, “people are going to come by Spiegelberg Stadium or Mel Ingram Field and they’re going to see the lights on and kids out there and all of a sudden want to get in too but we can’t have that. It’s something for the kids that are out there on the field, it’s not necessarily for their parents or their families or spectators. We’ve got to really control this environment for those safety precautions. That’s really the No. 1 thing.”

That said, Brown and Crater athletic director David Heard said they may entertain allowing for a restricted amount of approved spectators when they host opponents at Dutch Meyer Field. The Comets will be participating in an invitation-only showcase for their families and friends on Thursday, and Brown and Heard hope to use that as a dress rehearsal for opening things up to no more than 250 this fall.

“I think this is going to be a good start for us to see if our administration can withstand that type of responsibility,” said Brown, “and I can keep things organized enough to where I can get kids to actually sign their parents up that are going to come. It will be a good trial and error to see exactly what one of those skelly (7-on-7) matches is going to look like.”

Each district will likely make their own judgments on whether anyone can attend the passing league nights, but Heard figures if the OHA allows for outdoor gatherings under certain guidelines then it only makes sense to give it a try.

“My thought is if we’re allowed to have 250 people there, we could have a situation where parents come wearing a mask and they sit 6 feet apart and they could watch,” said Heard. “That’s the ideal situation for me. If that’s the rules and that’s what the OHA is putting out there, then I’m all for it. Obviously if we have any cases then we’re not going to be playing anymore, but we haven’t had any.”

The main purpose of the passing league, Musser said, has been agreed upon by all the coaches and that is to create more opportunities for their athletes.

“So many of our kids haven’t competed since last winter,” he said. “Just getting the kids out there and letting them compete and run around a little bit, that’s kind of the biggest thing I’ve heard echoed from all the coaches down here. They just want to give them a chance to be kids again and compete.”

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

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneCrater football practice Wednesday evening with athletes wearing masks at Crater Stadium in Central Point.