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Indoor training on ice amid winter season concerns

Medford athletes and coaches faced an abrupt turnaround to their indoor training plans Wednesday morning when newly imposed statewide regulations forced a complete shutdown of all activities to correspond with Gov. Kate Brown’s mandate for a two-week freeze, put in place to halt the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Oregon.

Less than a day earlier, Medford School District officials met and agreed to maintain the status quo of athletes training under already stringent safety protocols, according to North Medford athletic director Brent McConaghy, but that approach was wiped away by new guidance from the governor and Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) received Wednesday morning.

The governor initially didn’t impose added restrictions on K-12 schools and sports currently allowed, along with outdoor recreation and sports, when she called last Friday for statewide freeze measures to begin Wednesday and run through Dec. 2.

That all apparently changed late Tuesday night at the state level, McConaghy said, and the notification for an immediate shutdown of all indoor training to mirror the statewide freeze came Wednesday morning. Outdoor conditioning and training for up to 50 people is still allowed.

Both McConaghy and South Medford athletic director Chris Mahavong immediately contacted their coaches, who in turn passed the message along to athletes who have been training during this Season 1 open period. Most programs had already planned to take off Thanksgiving week.

Wednesday’s blow was simply the latest among several that have come at the expense of those athletes training for an official start to the already adjusted OSAA sports schedule, slated to begin with winter sports practices on Dec. 28.

Two of the three winter sports, basketball and wrestling, mind you remain on the Oregon Health Authority’s prohibited list since they’re considered full-contact sports. The third sport of swimming also has its own issues given venue restrictions and other safety protocols.

“We’re just trying to stay with it and just trying to give these kids some hope doing something instead of sitting at home,” said South Medford boys basketball coach James Wightman. “It’s all we can do.”

Given recent trends of increased coronavirus cases in Oregon and an abundance of caution among state officials, there is mounting concern that the winter Season 2 schedule (Dec. 28-March 6) will even take place as planned. The OSAA will hold a board meeting Dec. 7 to discuss the Season 2 status, and there has already been talk of a potential shift of those sports to Season 4 (April 19-June 22).

“I mean, Dec. 7 is not that far away and our numbers are exploding and the hospitals are kind of feeling it, too,” said Wightman, “so it’s not looking good.”

“It’s definitely tough,” added North Medford boys basketball coach Scott Plankenhorn, “but at the same time you just have to stay positive with the kids and keep pushing along for that (Dec. 7) date and then we’ll go from there and see what happens.

“If you get told no, I just don’t know where they go with it. If we’re pushed back farther and switching seasons, I just don’t know what they’ll do. I just feel bad if they’re going to make kids play at the same time as other sports and that will be where they have to choose. I just hope they don’t ever have to do that.”

If you’re a high school athlete during these trying times of COVID-19, nothing has been easy.

If you play a full-contact sport like basketball, football, wrestling, hockey or water polo, then it’s been an absolute chore just to maintain any semblance of training.

With the amount of time dwindling for basketball players and wrestlers to get prepared for their respective seasons should they get the OK to open full practice Dec. 28, it’s been especially daunting.

Basketball players have been going through the motions of shooting and dribbling drills, at a reasonable pace, while wearing masks here locally. They are not allowed to play any games or go through any drills that would involve contact.

“Our group is doing a pretty good job of showing up and going through it,” said Plankenhorn, whose athletes are going through weightlifting as well, “but obviously they ask all the time when can we do anything that’s playing, even if it’s just 2-on-2 or 3-on-3. They are definitely chomping at the bit wanting to at least get after each other a little bit. That’s the hard part, not being able to say yes we’re going to do it here.”

“We still have positive attitudes that our season is going to happen and that’s all we can do on that,” he added, “but until they release us to start doing that stuff it’s a chore for the kids, for sure, just to come down and shoot and know they’re not playing anytime that they come down there.”

Likewise, wrestlers aren’t allowed to drill with a partner or get any hands-on assistance, but that’s the least of the concerns for coaches like Crater’s Greg Haga.

“Everybody’s trying to do what they can,” said Haga. “There’s weightlifting going on and kids are doing what they can. I’m not worried about the preseason workout stuff because I always figure by the time we get them, in a matter of several weeks we can get them to a certain performance level. I’m more concerned about where kids are mentally from not just being around school and being around coaches and teammates on a daily basis.”

Haga said he’s heard from more than a few of his wrestlers about how not being able to participate in on-site learning at school and competitions with their teammates, in any sport, is weighing on them.

“They’re looking at school a lot different,” said Haga. “At a point last year at the end of the wrestling season, they’re looking at it like ‘I’m going to go to college and wrestle in one of these small colleges or something,’ and now they’re like ‘Nah, I’m not sure I want to go to college and wrestle.’”

“That’s the hard thing for me,” he added. “Sports are wonderful, but in the long run we’re hoping that it gives them the skill to be successful after high school. Without having that contact with them fairly often is tough. A phone call and a text message isn’t quite the same as when you sit down in your office and talk to them for 30 minutes.”

Like the rest of his peers here in the Rogue Valley, Haga said there is nothing more important to him than the health and safety of his athletes and that the coronavirus is a serious concern.

That said, other concerns like the mental and emotional well-being of those hoping to participate in athletics, and the ability to keep those students in check on a regular basis and constantly progressing toward a brighter future, should not be overlooked.

“They need the positivity of their teammates and the positivity of their coaches,” said Haga. “Even going through those daily trials of practices where practices are tough, it helps these young women and young men turn into better adults and it gives them a little more resolve. That’s the part I think we miss sometimes when we think about athletics, those lessons that later in life you can draw back on.”

At this point, Haga said that his peers are nearly unanimous in their hope that they do get a green light to participate in Season 2 as scheduled. The look of it will be entirely different given expected safety protocols, meaning tournaments and such won’t go on as usual and spectators may be at a minimum, but just having a season would be beneficial.

“Every wrestling coach I’ve talked to has said they’re pretty flexible,” said Haga. “We’re willing to do it any way you want it. We’ll do it outside and put up some heat or something.”

“We’re willing to do anything to have any kind of season and that’s why I tell my kids to keep faith,” he added. “I think most athletes in almost all the sports are saying just give us a season, we’ll figure it out.”

South Medford girls basketball coach Tom Cole said he believes the ability for kids to attend school even in a hybrid learning model will be the driving force behind whether any sports season will be had come 2021.

Plankenhorn added that the ability to remove masks will also be a telltale sign of positive things to come.

“The masks are very difficult and we continue to use them because we’re only shooting,” he said, “but I can’t imagine making a kid wear a mask while we’re running sprints and going up and down the way we play basketball. At some point if that mask isn’t going to come off anytime soon, that makes it difficult.”

With more guidance from the OHA and OSAA still to come Dec. 7 — and changes certainly possible — the Season 2 winter sports of basketball, wrestling and swimming can begin their seven-week regular seasons with contests Jan. 11, with an extra culminating week set aside March 1-7. Basketball teams will have 14-game regular seasons.

The Season 3 fall sports of football, soccer, volleyball and cross country can start practicing Feb. 22 and will play their first contests March 8. All have culminating weeks of April 26-May 2, except for football, which extends to May 3-9. Football will have a seven-game regular season.

The Season 4 spring sports of baseball, softball, track, golf and tennis will begin practices April 19, play their first contests May 3 and have culminating weeks June 21-27. Baseball and softball teams will have 18-game regular seasons.

“Every single person comes up with a different opinion,” said Plankenhorn. “I’m just trying to stay positive and go with the flow on what everybody says and if the governor is going to allow winter sports or not. That decision should be coming soon and I would like it to be made sooner than later but they’re going to make it when they make it.

“I just feel like the kids are getting strung along doing all these things that they can do, and we’re doing a pretty good job of it, but they just have no confirmation that they’re going to get to play so that makes it difficult. Even though you can be as positive as you want and there’s positive people out there saying we’re going to get that chance, there’s plenty of the other side saying you have no chance. So it’s going to be a difficult wait.”

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

Kellen Kerrigan, a junior, placed fifth at 138 pounds for Crater in the Class 5A state championships last February. Photo by Angie Walters
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune North’s Bryce Dyer steals the ball during the 2nd quarter.