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‘Unhealthy’ air forces schedule changes

Air conditions falling in the “unhealthy” category here in Southern Oregon have already forced a handful of changes for those playing outdoor sports but with season-opening football games fast approaching, everything came to a head for a few local teams Wednesday.

Leaning on the side of caution, several local high schools have opted to shift their game sites for their football openers to avoid having to play in the smoky conditions that have taken over the Rogue Valley.

“We basically had three options regarding (South Medford’s) scheduled home game vs. Wilsonville: take a chance hoping air quality will change by Friday and plan to play, cancel the game or move the game,” said Amy Tiger, Medford’s district athletic director and safety coordinator, in a press release announcing its move. “Obviously, playing at home is the first choice, but we can’t risk students playing in unhealthy air conditions. In order to make the option of moving the game work, we needed to make a decision by Wednesday.”

By 3 p.m. Wednesday, the Air Quality Index (AQI) was at 188 for Medford, 176 in Ashland, 168 in Grants Pass and 165 in Klamath Falls. “Good” air quality status is given to places where the levels are below 50, with “moderate” between 51-100.

The Oregon School Activities Association mandates that with any AQI over 150, all outdoor contests should be canceled and practices limited to not more than two hours in length with frequent breaks and a decrease in normal intensity. All local schools have been adhering to that policy, utilizing gym space whenever possible to cut their time outdoors.

Southern Oregon University got the ball rolling late Tuesday night when it decided to postpone Thursday’s season opener against Eastern Oregon. A makeup date has not been set — although action is expected Thursday — but there is consideration to try and play the game Saturday in Ashland.

At the high school level, South Medford was able to switch home sites with Wilsonville for its Friday opener — thus leaving Spiegelberg Stadium vacant for a rare Friday night — while Phoenix will be playing its opener against Crook County at Sutherlin High School.

Thursday’s opener for Eagle Point against Glencoe has been moved to Del Norte High School in Crescent City, California, and Crater will also play at Del Norte on Friday for its season opener against Soldotna of Alaska.

Cascade Christian has opted to start its game against Henley one hour later than scheduled at 8 p.m. Friday at U.S. Cellular Community Park in hopes of limiting exposure to the unhealthy air.

No determination has been made yet on a potential schedule change for Ashland’s game at Klamath Union on Friday

North Medford’s season opener at Fortuna, California, has not been affected, according to head coach Mike Mitchell, nor has anything been deterred after revelations that a Fortuna player suffered a stroke toward the end of that team’s opener last week and has been placed in a medically-induced coma.

“His kids have said they want to play and are looking forward to it,” Mitchell said of conversations with Huskies head coach Mike Benbow, who is one of his former players. “I talked to our guys about it because I don’t want them to walk into a bee’s nest with what’s going on but we haven’t made too much about it.”

In the case of the Fortuna player, there was no evidence of issue either during the game or in watching post-game film that led to a reason why senior Bailey Foley began to have seizures with about one minute left in the game. Foley played as a linebacker and running back in the 41-18 loss to Cardinal Newman High.

“I know Mike didn’t see anything when he went back over it and I went through the film myself just watching the kid and I never saw anything either,” said Mitchell. “It was a regular play but I never saw a hit or anything that would lead you to believe anything happened in the game.”

In the case of South Medford, head coach Bill Singler doesn’t believe the late change in venue will do much to affect his senior-laden squad.

“It shouldn’t,” he said of the move. “We’re using the same itinerary so that’s good, we know where the game is — we’re not going to get lost — and we know who the opponent is because we played them last year.”

“We’re just thankful Wilsonville has the accommodations and support staff and the stadium available to let us play on Friday,” added Singler. “We’re lucky. We just want to play a game, the kids deserve it. In football you only have so many games anyway so every game is important.”

Given the circumstances, Singler said Oregonians should be thankful the situation isn’t worse.

“After watching what the Houston area is going through, shoot, I can’t worry about what we’re going through,” he said. “Those kids that are seniors down there probably aren’t even going to play a football season maybe, we don’t even know what the ramifications are going to be down there, and who knows about basketball seasons at high schools where wooden floors have morphed or there’s a fully mangled field to keep them from doing other things. We’re fortunate “

South Medford Athletic Director Tim Rupp said the schools had been in discussions since Monday over what to do should the air quality not improve in Medford and the deadline to make something work for all parties came Wednesday with all involved believing it was best to move the game up north.

“I don’t think anytime you’re making a call to move a home game to an away game is an easy call to make,” said Rupp, “but we’ve been working with all the other athletic directors and we felt the right decision was that we needed to get out of here.”

“We talked about trying to find a neutral site halfway to meet them to play but as of yesterday there was not really a valid neutral site that was free of smoke,” he added. “Plus we all figured it would be better with fans there and have it be fun and exciting with more people on hand.”

Rupp was effusive in his praise for the administrators at Wilsonville for not only coming up with a reasonable solution, but for Wilsonville AD Dennis Burke and his offer to help the Panthers offset their financial losses.

“Wilsonville has been very gracious to not only host us but they know this is our home game and they’re going to help reimburse us for the gate receipts we’re going to lose,” said Rupp of splitting the gate among other concessions. “They’re absolutely incredible knowing we’re going to Portland now two weeks in a row and are trying to not make us take the financial hit we were going to take. We are very fortunate.”

South Medford gained a school-record 711 yards in total offense to go with a program-high in points during last year’s 73-34 win at perennial 5A powerhouse Wilsonville. The game was later forfeited due to use of an ineligible player but it’s doubtful any of the players on either side care about the semantics of that.

The Wildcats, last year’s state runner-up in 5A, boast defensive end/tight end Draco Bynum, who at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds is committed to Washington, and senior defensive end A.J. Burkhead. Junior Nathan Overholt gained experience last year at quarterback despite the presence of Connor Neville, who has gone on to Washington State, but was in an offseason battle with JV QB Derek Irby.

“I’m sure they’re pleased they don’t have to travel down here in the heat and they’re probably looking for a little redemption at home after last year,” said Singler. “We know they’re going to be a challenge, for sure, we’re just going to have to go out and put our best foot forward because Wilsonville is one of the top teams at their level.”

At Eagle Point, this year’s change will now mark a third season in a row that the Eagles haven’t had five home games but Seth Womack, who serves as AD and football coach, said the school is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure safety.

“Of course that’s a knock to our bottom line because we don’t get that gate money,” said Womack, “but that isn’t in the realm of consideration when we make these decisions. We look to the safety of our students and even Glencoe’s students.”

“The OSAA has guidelines on this kind of thing and we’re probably in the parameter to play that game here,” he added, “but when looking at it, Glencoe has been in Portland practicing with great air quality and to bring them down here to subpar air quality like this and not be kind of used to it, I don’t feel good about that as an administrator. I couldn’t do it.”

Rupp said all schools will have to continue to monitor the air quality situation moving forward and there potentially could be more changes on the horizon.

“We’re still practicing however we can,” said Rupp, “but we can control what happens in practice and that’s why we’re still allowing teams to practice outside. There’s limited time and activity they can do and we ask them to be in the gym as much as possible. We can do that with practice but in games we can’t control the amount of exertion that can happen so that’s why we’re all doing our best to follow those OSAA guidelines to keep kids as safe as possible.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

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North Medford senior quarterback Josh Robbins (14) guides the offense during the team's recent jamboree. The Black Tornado's season opener at Fortuna, California, has not been affected by smoky conditions, but several other schools have had to alter their schedules. [LARRY STAUTH JR./FOR THE MAIL TRIBUNE]
Mitchell