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Area coaches embrace season changes made by OSAA

Of all the decisions made the past nine months by the Oregon School Activities Association, none was more anticipated than Monday’s move to push back the start of high school sports to February and begin again with the usual fall slate.

“I think everyone kind of saw that coming,” said Stephanie Vandenbusch, who coaches girls soccer and softball at Phoenix High. “I think it makes more sense the way they have it now.”

The OSAA’s revised plan brings fall sports to the forefront with a Feb. 8 start to practice in football and Feb. 22 start in cross country, soccer and volleyball. Contests may begin March 1, although guidelines already in place by Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority restrict all indoor activities and football remains prohibited due to its full-contact status.

Basketball and wrestling, which would have been joined by swimming to start 2021 under the previous plan, are also prohibited due to their designation as full-contact sports.

A month ago as COVID-19 cases began to climb statewide to their highest level, coaches of all sports began to realize how unlikely it would be to start with winter sports on the previous Dec. 28 timeline and braced for the inevitable Monday.

“I was optimistic about a late-December start,” said Crater girls basketball coach Scott Dippel, “but realistically the closer we got to that date, I felt like we would have to move, unless we changed our designation of being a high-risk sport.”

Dippel’s squad had already endured a tapered down workout schedule, with masks on and only non-contact drills allowed, when gyms were closed Nov. 18 by the governor during a statewide freeze.

The ability to reopen gyms became tied to the county’s case rate Dec. 2 and, with Jackson County falling in the extreme-risk category, Dippel and his indoor coaching peers had little hope it would change before year’s end.

That’s why Monday’s move was welcomed by coaches, like Dippel, in currently restricted sports.

“I think it was the right thing to do,” he said of the OSAA decision to push winter sports to a May 10 start of practice. “You’ve got wrestling and basketball, which you’ve identified as high risk early on in this process, and now putting them at the end of the season makes sense. I’m excited that we got moved to May. I think it gives us the best chance to play.”

The ability to play in a competitive season, as much as anything, was chief among the concerns of coaches in the valley, who want to see their athletes be rewarded for the work many have put in under less than ideal conditions since the summer.

“I think the OSAA has done a good job of weighing the risks and trying not to contribute to the spread of the coronavirus,” said Vandenbusch, “while also making sure they’re doing their best to get these kids something out of what this has turned out to be this year.”

That said, many coaches will believe it when they see it when it comes to actually starting an official season. The high school sports calendar began to shift March 12 after a spate of basketball tournament games were canceled and has seen a number of plans go by the wayside ever since.

“I really don’t have much of a reaction to be honest with you because things seem to be changing all the time,” said North Medford football coach Steve Turner of Monday’s move. “I’ve got a strange feeling that this won’t be the last decision. I think it’s going to change again so I’m just trying to keep an even keel instead of the ups and downs. I decided a long time ago to just keep a straight line and keep going and not get too high about things or too low about things because we keep changing.”

“The thing that’s been the most important for us is the kids and trying to keep them informed but, again, not get their hopes up too high or let them drop down again,” he added. “That’s the challenge. The challenge is taking care of the players and making sure that they’re still progressing forward as best as you can.”

Turner pointed to several organizations, including the “Let Them Play” movement founded in Southern Oregon that has taken root throughout the state, that have tried to move the needle toward a return to action, but he won’t truly believe it to be a reality until he opens up his first day of practice, hopefully Feb. 8.

“There’s a lot of people that are trying to get kids back in school and trying to get kids to play,” said Turner. “This is just my thought but the person who’s going to change all that is the governor. She’s the one that’s either going to allow us to play or not.”

As football teams have done their best to accommodate with socially distancing at practices, they’ve also been the benefactors of a return to 7-on-7 play this fall against other schools. Soccer teams have also gotten into the action with their own makeshift leagues and, last Friday, North Medford High set up an outdoor net on Bowerman Field to host a scrimmage against South Medford as volleyball programs do their best to make adjustments to their workout options.

South Medford volleyball coach Robin Akpan said her players have trained on the sand courts at Fichtner-Mainwaring Park and anywhere else they can condition as they await word on the reopening of gyms.

“Our players have been really great about following the guidelines that we need to do to be able to play in the gym with our masks on and outside with our masks on,” she said. “They’re looking at it as a little challenge that we’ve just got to get over. If we all take care of each other, then hopefully we’ll be back closer to normal sooner. We’re hopeful by February when we start that things will open back up.”

There has been at least one benefit to being displaced thus far, according to Akpan.

“It’s a different atmosphere, definitely,” she said of training and playing outdoors, “but I think one of the things we try to teach in volleyball, like in most sports, is that volleyball is a sport that you can play for the rest of your life. This kind of leads into that, where we’re showing that you can play indoors and outdoors. We just hope that the weather helps us out a little bit so we can keep going.”

All adjustments, mind you, may not be that easy.

The most recent shift means shorter seasons at a maximum of six weeks instead of the previous eight, as well as no chance to compete for a state championship.

For multi-sport coaches who rely on a consistent schedule like Vandenbusch, it also creates a bit of a headache now that she moves from one sport into the other. With the soccer season culminating as late as April 11, while pitchers and catchers can report March 22 and softball begins practice April 4, she doesn’t have the luxury of a gap season to prepare as she did before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the sports schedule.

“As with any part of coaching,” said Vandenbusch, who began coaching softball in the spring of 2015 and soccer in fall 2016, “you have to be able to adapt and try your best to plan ahead. With everything changing, it’s all about really being flexible.

“For me, I have some really good assistant coaches that I can kind of share the things I was doing before and they can help me out by covering it because we’re going to be playing soccer games when softball can begin practicing. The only concern that I do have would be the rain for softball purposes, and soccer in February is going to be cold, but we’ll make it work.”

Currently, Vandenbusch said her focus has been on soccer since it’s the sport that will come first, but she’s also been overseeing the day-to-day handlings in softball by JV head coach Kevin Scoggins, whom she is thankful to have available.

“I’ve been running practices basically all year since the summertime,” she said. “This year I just won’t have any break, and that’s OK. ”

Not having enough of a break between football seasons has been a long-standing concern for Turner, and the potential for it being delayed again without some movement in that area by the OHA and governor continues to give him pause as he eyes 2021.

“My ultimate concern is the kids and the fact that the longer we put this off, especially if things do change where we get back to normal, and then start a season again, is there going to be enough time for these kids to recuperate from football to football?” Turner questioned. “With adults, professionals and college kids, things are developed more, but for us we’re talking about some young kids and to me that’s the danger, that you don’t give them enough time to recuperate in between seasons.”

Dippel also sees some potential drawbacks in basketball being put into a May 10-June 27 time frame, but he hopes overriding factors of finally being able to compete will negate those.

“When you’re playing sports after Memorial Day, you’re going to have a lot of kids who are going to be thinking about transitioning to college and whatever they’re doing next in the summer,” said Dippel. “But I think kids are so desperate for sports right now, that will be at the forefront of their minds and they’re going to stay motivated.”

“There’s going to be some decisions with athletes in all of these sports,” he added, “but I just am optimistic that after what the kids have gone through that they’ll want to play because they want to be with their friends, they want the competition and they miss the camaraderie and that will kind of win out.”

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.

If everything falls into place, Chance Costanzo and the North Medford football team can begin play in March. MT file photo
The last time Taryn Dance, right, and her Crater basketball teammates took the floor, they were on the winning end of a state tournament game. Winter sports have now been pushed back to a May 17 start for games. MT file photo