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Local softball programs unite this fall

Amid all the setbacks endured, including a lost spring 2020 season, a few local softball coaches are doing what they can to seize an opportunity to turn those negatives into positives before the year runs out.

With the Oregon School Activities Association allowing for Season 1 play until Dec. 27 for non-contact to minimum contact, a slight Southern Oregon Conference revival is taking place this fall with North Medford, South Medford, Crater, Eagle Point, Grants Pass and, potentially, Roseburg all joining forces for some good-natured competition.

“(Crater softball coach) Chris Arnold has kind of headed it up a little bit,” said North Medford softball coach Chris Campbell. “We’re all just trying to scramble right now, trying to find out who can play when and that kind of thing.”

The process began with coaches merely getting together to discuss the evolving world of sports during the COVID-19 pandemic and see if they could get on the same page when it comes to accomplishing something this fall.

What stemmed from those Zoom meetings was a loosely based schedule that continues to gain momentum, with Crater and Eagle Point starting things out with games this past Tuesday.

At 11 a.m. today, North Medford will host Crater in a battle of former state champions, and South Medford opens its slate in the coming week.

Spectators are not allowed at any of the games, normally played Tuesdays and Saturdays. There are a few exceptions for those fields that allow for fans to watch from their car or, such as at North Medford, are able to socially distance outside the fence area adjacent to the parking lot.

“Absolutely nobody can be inside the complex except for players, coaches and umpires,” said Campbell. “Our varsity field is a little different with the big parking lot above the field and that’s fine, but spectators cannot walk through the big chain link gate with the opening to come down the walkway and watch.”

Added Arnold: “From a spectator’s perspective, that’s going to be interesting to see as we get into the fall competitions and sports start to take place how it all works. There are regulations and guidelines and it’s much more restricted than it has been on a normal sunny Saturday afternoon seeing everybody come out to the ballpark.”

Outside the familiar sight of fans camped in the bleachers, the games themselves will also take on a different look with players, coaches and umpires donning masks on the field at some sites, at the very least in the dugout, to go with a host of safety protocols implemented to prevent potential spread of the coronavirus.

“From a participant’s perspective, there certainly are more precautions,” said Arnold. “Our practices are much different than they look during a typical season with all the cleaning and sanitizing and conversations prior to practice and temperature checks. It’s a routine now and I think all of us have gotten kind of used to that.”

What the coaches and players aren’t used to, however, is the added time for competition here this fall.

“It absolutely is an opportunity,” said Arnold. “For the fall, not to just get practices in with our athletes, but also getting competition? As a spring sport it’s awesome. We can really get a lot accomplished here in the fall that typically would have been much more difficult. It’s really a golden opportunity for any school that can have their athletes going.”

Schools such as Ashland only began practicing this past Tuesday, and with nine workouts necessary before anyone can compete per OSAA regulations, the Grizzlies don’t expect to use their six-week session to do more than train, although softball coach Bobby Heiken said he hopes to get a few games in later this fall.

For his own part, Arnold said he doesn’t have too many grand ideas about how many games the Comets will be able to get in before the opportunity ceases.

“If we could get in 10 games this fall, holy smokes that would be incredible,” said Arnold, “but I don’t know if that’s going to happen. With the smoke and the air quality, that has stifled a lot of practices the last couple weeks so that too would apply in game situations since we’re an outdoor sport.”

As much as anything, Arnold said he has appreciated the camaraderie among the softball programs to at least provide for some opportunities in 2020 after most programs have essentially remained dormant.

“All of the programs around here do a great job and the coaches are cooperating with each other and talking with each other and just trying to help grow the sport,” said Arnold. “We want to see everybody be able to participate but I know it’s difficult. The bigger schools have a little easier time than some of the smaller schools in kind of getting everybody on the same page with all the OSAA requirements and all the safety procedures that are new. It’s been a challenge but I like the fact that we’re all communicating and working together so that kids have an opportunity to participate.”

One of those groups that has eschewed potential play as a high school squad has been a group headed by Cascade Christian softball coach Keith Willard. With his own daughter Katelyn and her classmates Rebecca Clark and Zoie Fisher, the group has pulled in players like Raelyssa Goff of Phoenix, Emily Nielsen of Eagle Point, Kirsten Morgan of Ashland and a handful of players from the Grants Pass and Yreka areas to form a traveling squad that has excelled since combining this summer at 22-5 overall.

“They’ve been really impressive because they’ve been playing some high level tournaments and doing well,” said coach Willard.

Despite being a 16U squad, the group has played at the 18A level and won three of the four NAFA tournaments they have attended, mostly outside the Portland area, with Katelyn Willard earning special recognition at the Fastpitch Northwest all-star event in Keizer this past August.

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 Tribune Crater’s Presley Robinson makes a throw to complete a double play off a line drive in the 2nd inning.