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One week from start of season, football teams remain in limbo

Despite no guarantee that all their hard work will soon be rewarded, local high school football players and coaches are taking an optimistic approach these days toward the planned opening of official practices Feb. 8.

Then again, what choice do they have?

It’s certainly better than the alternative for a group that has shown tremendous resolve in the face of consistent obstacles since the COVID-19 pandemic put everything in disorder.

“I’m definitely excited,” said Crater senior lineman Dawson Davis of a potential football season on the near horizon. “We’ve been without football for a while now and it’s been tough. We haven’t actually gotten on the field to hit it hard and get helmets on and get pads on and get ready to do it in what seems like forever. COVID has just been tough on all of us without really having sports and having school to go to.”

The odds of a competitive season actually happening this March and April, however, aren’t as promising as one might hope.

While the football community may be one week out from kicking off an already revised Season 2 schedule of winter sports that includes soccer, cross country and volleyball, which are each set to begin practice Feb. 22, it remains prohibited from being played due to restrictions on full-contact sports set in place by the governor’s office and the Oregon Health Authority.

“I’m hoping Gov. Kate Brown will loosen things up and clear us to go for contact sports,” said Davis. “I’m really hoping for that, but you never know.”

It’s that unknown aspect that continues to give pause to those on the football field.

“I think from a mental standpoint, it’s difficult on kids and families and coaches because you don’t have an end,” said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. “Right now we’re just out there suspended in air. Even though we have dates that we are targeting to start, we’re still not OK to go out and begin on Feb. 8 until we’re cleared by the Oregon Health Authority and the governor’s office and the school districts and counties and everybody else.”

Since soccer and cross country are outdoor sports that can be played under current safety protocols, Oregon School Activities Association executive director Peter Weber said there are few concerns those activities will be able to play competitive seasons as planned.

Volleyball has its own set of obstacles due to its status as an indoor sport, but Weber said the plan is to allow schools that can play, according to their county’s lower risk levels, to play beginning in March.

“With football, obviously we need something to change,” admitted Weber.

“The short answer is we don’t know if we’re going to be able to have football,” he added. “We’re still hopeful, we’re still having communication with the OHA and the governor’s office and we are working on some alternative options if we can’t have contact football. We’ve talked about maybe 7-on-7 as potentially an option if we get to the point, but we’re still hopeful that something may give in a week or so.”

And to be clear, neither the local school districts or counties or the OSAA itself have the power to make that call.

“The governor has to make the change, that’s it,” said Weber. “She’s the one that sets the sports policy, obviously working with the OHA, but she’s the one that sets that and she’s the one that would need to change it.”

Case counts for the coronavirus appear to be trending ever so slightly toward a downturn, and Southern Oregon’s public schools are planning to open in at least a hybrid format for those interested in February. The hope is that both factors help embolden a decision by the governor to allow a return to sports competitions in every facet.

“I am a little bit worried,” said North Medford senior receiver/defensive back Nolan Morris, “but if we do end up going back to school like people say we are, I think that will kind of confirm that we definitely have a chance of playing football and having somewhat of a season. I’m kind of just waiting on that and staying optimistic.”

Singler said he continues to be amazed by the attitudes of his players, who have shown incredible attendance during their available Season 1 training opportunities.

“I can’t imagine being a kid in high school, being out of school for almost a year and not having competitive sports for almost a year,” said the Panthers coach. “Man, I don’t know what my family would’ve done. I don’t know how we would’ve handled that.”

Davis said it definitely hasn’t been easy, but the make of a quality athlete is making sure you put in the time and work to get better.

None of that changes, COVID-19 restrictions or not.

“It’s tough to think that there’s a possibility of a year without football,” said Davis, whose last game was the Class 5A state championship on Nov. 30, 2019, “but you’ve got to go by what the coaches say. You practice because you’re going to play one day. We’re just going to keep working through it and we’ll see what happens in the end.”

“I definitely feel like the boys are wanting to play,” added the 6-foot-3, 280-pounder. “Everyone is still pushing and I don’t see anyone really complaining too much. Everything has been so crazy right now, but we’re just happy to get that chance next week to do something for real. We’re ready to work, ready to get better and ready to play.”

That seems to be the mantra throughout the football community, which has worked through its coaches’ association and groups like “Let Them Play” to help spread the word that the game can be played without unreasonable risk to the athletes or the community at large.

“There’s a lot to learn from the 35 or so other states that played and had success playing sports in the fall already,” said Singler. “You look around with Montana and Idaho and Utah and all these other states that are very close to us being able to play and, darn it, it just seems like Oregon would fall into that category. The science has proven it has worked and you can play, but we’ll see what happens.”

Weber said the OSAA continues to have conversations advocating for a return to play with the governor’s office, pointing to recent openings of play in New York, Illinois and New Mexico among others, but it’s difficult to gauge what progress is being made here in Oregon.

Like most in the sports community, Weber said he’s staying hopeful, but the OSAA is also doing its due diligence to see what opportunities it can provide if things don’t change soon.

From a health and safety standpoint, Weber said the idea of pushing back the football season is not being explored given the quick turnaround to a potential 2021 fall season. Shortening the currently planned six-week season also seems unlikely.

“I think what we’re trying to be focused on is if we get to a point where it’s not going to happen in terms of contact football,” said Weber, “then how do we try to provide as many opportunities as we can for kids. If that means looking at shifting to 7-on-7 or flag football or a combination or something that would be able to hopefully provide that engagement opportunity for students, then we’re going to look at it and see what we can come up with.”

The OSAA executive board is next set to meet Feb. 8, and a decision on how to proceed with football would need to be made sooner rather than later to give teams proper time to prepare for a competitive season.

“We feel like having kids together and practicing and working out, those are positives whether there’s a season or not,” said Weber. “Obviously we don’t want to be in the situation of providing false hope to people. I think we’ve been pretty up front about the fact that while we’re hopeful, we haven’t had an indication that it’s going to change, but we still are hopeful that it could. And if it doesn’t, then we’re going to focus on the things that we are able to provide, not just in the other sports but potentially in football as well. It’s so important for kids to be active and get involved with stuff that we need to focus on what we can be doing for kids and not as much on what we might not be able to.”

Simply being allowed to get together for training, even if it’s not under typical conditions, has had a tremendous impact on all involved, according to Singler.

“Even though we can’t play our sport contact-wise right now, we still have been allowed within numbers to go outside and have some workouts and at least see the whites of the kids’ eyes, which is so important,” said Singler. “These kids need to see their teachers’ eyes, they need to see their friends’ eyes, they need to see their coaches’ eyes, and we’ve been able to do that at least, and that’s been the most positive thing. It’s been so positive to get out and feel their soul and look at them as a human being, face-to-face.”

The only shadow on the current experience is the feeling of being in limbo, with no control over what’s to come.

“Coaches like things they can control,” said Singler. “You like to control your practice environment, you like to control your locker room environment, but right now everything as far as the season is concerned is kind of out of our hands. Even though we’ve been allowed to workout, which I think has been a terrific plus for these kids, we’re still in limbo. We don’t want the rug pulled out from underneath us, but we also know that nothing is for certain.”

And that’s why players like Davis won’t be taking anything for granted should they actually get to compete again on the gridiron here soon.

“I’ve been playing football my whole life and I’m finally at my senior season and it’s almost taken away from me,” said the four-year starter. “If I do get the chance, I’ve really got to ball out with my boys one last time before I head to college. It means a lot to me. It means a lot to all of us.”

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

South Medford senior Kaleb Barney runs the football during a pursuit drill with teammates Friday at Spiegelberg Stadium. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
South Medford assistant coach Chris Parnell instructs players during a training session Friday at Spiegelberg Stadium. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune