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Spring sports return this week to delight of local athletes

They were part of a forgotten group, one that never had a season to call their own.

Left in limbo as the first casualty in Oregon’s high school sports scene, their story was different from all their peers in 2020, but their wait, thankfully, ends Monday.

Spring sports athletes will return to their respective pursuits after a 23-month hiatus this week, with golf and tennis on Monday’s schedule while baseball, softball and track and field begin to fill the Southern Oregon slate Tuesday.

“I’m super excited to see all the girls again and be able to practice with them,” St. Mary’s senior Baylee Hammericksen said in anticipation of the six-week Season 3. “I’m counting the days really and enjoying this beautiful weather.”

Before looking forward, though, it’s hard not to look back on what transpired one year ago and all the spring athletes endured while each of us were learning on a daily basis about COVID-19 and how to exist amid a pandemic.

“It was a unique feeling because it was just so sudden,” said North Medford senior hurdler Aidan Vanderhoof of the March 12, 2020, stoppage. “One day we were practicing in the gym and were in groups and the next day there literally were no sports. And for track people, there was no real other avenue to turn to. We didn’t really have access to the sport other than through our high school, and that was gone.”

In the lifetime of these teenagers, nothing like this had ever happened.

Sports were always there, as a means of recreation or release, a way to fit in or stand out.

“It was a feeling that I didn’t think I would ever have, that feeling of having it taken away,” said South Medford senior catcher Bennett Thompson. “It definitely took a toll — emotionally, physically, spiritually — because it felt like there was something missing. Being a student-athlete, there’s obviously two parts to that and when you have one without the other, it definitely feels like something is missing.”

In the 2019-20 school year, at least those who participated in fall and winter sports were able to complete their regular seasons. It wasn’t optimal, for sure, but even the final sport in action prior to the shutdown was in its last two rounds of play at Class 6A, 5A and 4A basketball tournaments.

For spring athletes, they were just ramping up to embark on their seasons, brimming with optimism and, for many, hopeful to make a name for themselves among college recruiters.

“I was really looking forward to my junior season because for track athletes that’s really where you find out just how good you are at the sport,” said Vanderhoof, who qualified for state in the 300-meter hurdles as well as the 400- and 1,600-meter relays as a sophomore.

With no season to call his own, Vanderhoof said all that remained for track athletes like himself was to continue individual workouts, which was not made any easier after school facilities were cordoned off until last July.

“The hardest part for me was rekindling that motivation to keep working out and keep going out there to run,” Vanderhoof said of his offseason regimen. “It still was important for the next season to continue to go out there and do the workouts, even if it’s alone, but it’s hard to get yourself to do that while you still have to manage studies and switch to online classes like we’ve had to do. I feel like those that found a way to get out there are going to do a lot better this coming season.”

Vanderhoof said for most of the past year he really “just felt like I was wasting away” until the Oregon School Activities Association received an OK to proceed with high school sports from the Oregon Health Authority and Gov. Kate Brown in December.

“I always believed in my heart that we would at least get a season,” he said, “but the scary part for me was just how much I would lose, because I’ve really got to make it count now. This is the last opportunity.”

For Hammericksen, who signed last November with the University of Oregon, she’s already missed an opportunity to make history.

A repeat winner of individual and team crowns at the Class 4A/3A/2A/1A level — the Crusaders had actually won four straight team titles as of May 2019 — Hammericksen lost out on her dream to finish as a four-time individual state champion last spring.

She set the Oregon 4A/3A/2A/1A state record for the lowest recorded two-day score with a 5-under 139 as a sophomore.

Always one to keep perspective and a positive outlook, though, it wasn’t the individual acclaim that Hammericksen said has been missing since she and her teammates walked off the course together that last time nearly two years ago.

“I think the biggest thing that I missed about playing golf for my high school was the friendship and camaraderie that you form with your teammates,” said Hammericksen, whose younger sister Riley finished third at state as a freshman in 2019. “Five days a week, every week, you’re practicing with them, you have little contests with them and you talk about things.”

“Even though the golf season isn’t super long, you’d be surprised at how much you can develop relationships with your other teammates” she added. “Being able to compete as a team would make the victories even sweeter when we would win tournaments because it wasn’t just you, it was you and the three or four other girls who were there to compete with you. It made everything so much more emotion-heightening, so that part I definitely missed. Even though I love competing with just myself, having that relationship and sharing this love with other girls who I go to school with is just such a unique experience.”

Thompson, an Oregon baseball signee, agreed.

“Obviously I love playing baseball all the time,” said Thompson, “but there is definitely something special about playing and representing your school. Growing up, I played for the Junior Panthers program since I was 9 years old and I remember watching the varsity players and looking up to them and dreaming about playing in their shoes one day.”

He obviously could never foresee losing his junior season, but, unlike track athletes like Vanderhoof, Thompson still had a chance to compete over the ensuing summer with the Medford Mustangs and Medford Rogues to fill that void.

“That was a blessing, for sure,” said Thompson. “I’m still super-appreciative of that because I probably would’ve gone insane if I didn’t have those few months of baseball kind of in the middle to help keep my sanity.”

Likewise, Hammericksen was thankful she got to play in a handful of tournaments after last year’s school season was derailed. She won the Rogue Valley Stroke Play Championships and the Southern Oregon Golf Championships while placing second in the Oregon Golf Association Stroke Play and Public Links championship.

“Golf has been such a big part of my life, not only competitively, but it was also a way I could outlet my emotions and find a calm and safe space where I could just be,” she said. “So I think if I had lost that completely last year, it would’ve been a lot more impactful to my personal life and even my mental health. The fact that I was able to continue going with it and keep kind of a semblance of routine in a chaotic time was really lucky, I’m so grateful that I had that.”

And like any beloved aspect of life thankfully restored, being able to compete again this week has brought on a newfound appreciation among spring athletes.

“It’s even the small things of just being out there and practicing that seem to mean more,” said Thompson. “It’s something that sometimes you can take for granted in the middle of a season, when you’re tired and you’re sore and you don’t really want to be there, but I will take being tired and sore and practicing over sitting at home and doing nothing all day, every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. There’s no doubt.”

Even that drive for the best of results has been tempered by savoring the smallest of moments, said Hammericksen.

“When I’m playing golf I’ve always been ultra-competitive and that’s been one thing that’s really helped me excel at what I do,” she said. “I really have that drive to get better and improve and get that score one shot better and things like that, but on the other end of that you can sometimes lose the enjoyment of just being out there and enjoying what you’re doing.

“I think that over the course of this pandemic, it’s really taught me to slow down and not be so absorbed in results and scores and to just enjoy being out there at all because there are so many more unfortunate things going on in the world that have affected so many people. It’s just a blessing to even be out there right now.”

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 North Medford senior Aidan Vanderhoof runs hurdle drills at the high school track.