Feb. 28—If there is a mantra driving high school administrators and coaches as they bring competition back to students after a year of COVID-19-induced dormancy, it could be this: Be creative.
Cross-country coaches are following suit as their season nears.
"We're just trying to give kids an opportunity to compete," said North Medford coach Piet Voskes. "I think that's all they really want at this point, just a place to put on a uniform and have something that says, I raced.
"That's kind of our thought process, just unique, creative ways to bring kids together."
The districts will be different for Season 2 of the Oregon School Activities Association's six-week competitive season, which begins Monday. So, too, the meet setups. There are gathering limitations, so spectators are likely to be in short supply, if at all. And runners will be required to wear masks as they're racing.
That was the landscape when schedules and guidelines were adopted in recent weeks under existing state mandates.
In the Class 6A and 5A ranks, schools from Roseburg to the south have formed a hybrid district of North Medford, South Medford, Grants Pass, Roseburg, Ashland and Crater. Eagle Point, the other 5A school in the region, is young and will have an independent schedule.
"It's kind of cool to get the old Southern Oregon Conference back together, or a hybrid version of that," said Voskes.
Boys and girls teams will compete in dual meets for three or four weeks, followed by a regional meet, then a culminating-week meet that could be a virtual statewide event.
The OSAA is not conducting state championships in Season 2, but coaches around the state intend to provide events to replicate them.
With only 50 people initially allowed on the premises in extreme risk counties, which included Jackson County, a schedule of two schools per meet site was adopted for Southern Oregon's larger schools. The risk level dropped to high this week, allowing for 75 at a site.
The regional meet would be April 5 and include interested teams from 6A to 1A. It likely would be held at various sites, with teams competing against others of like size.
Gathering size restrictions could require teams to come in waves throughout the day: two or three teams compete, then vacate the site, and others move in for their turn.
Times would be compiled and filtered into conference team and individual standings.
Guidelines, of course, could change in the next 1 1 1/4/2 months.
"We're hopeful and trying to be realistic that we might be able to get more teams," said Ashland coach Karl Pryor, who has taken over the program after Hans Voskes retired.
Smaller schools, from 4A down, will likely have fewer team members so more teams might compete at once.
Venues could also determine the number of teams. A course along narrow trails, said Phoenix coach John Cornet, would be more limiting than one at an expansive park. The idea of multiple finish lines has also been broached, he said.
Among the biggest questions is whether runners will have to wear masks while competing.
The Washington and California prep governing bodies announced earlier this month runners would not have to wear them. Oregon has yet to follow suit.
Brad Garrett, assistant executive director of the OSAA who oversees cross-country, said the organization has pushed the Oregon Health Authority and Gov. Kate Brown's office for three months to ease mask requirements during actual competition.
"Strategy wise, they're trying to find every opportunity to mitigate anything they can," said Garrett. "With cross-country, I get it. At least in that sport, if you're running and you need a breath, you can pull the mask down and then put it back up. That's going to occur, you know it is.
"It's tough. Coaches are struggling with it, but they're making it work."
Running while wearing a mask is "really difficult," said Pryor, whose son, Reed, is among the top runners in the state and has committed to Harvard.
Ashland runners have tried plastic mouth guards that prevent masks from being sucked into their mouths, he said.
Any compromise would be welcome, said Voskes, such as wearing masks in practice but not in meets.
"Right now, we're still locked in," he said.
Here's a look at Southern Oregon boys and girls teams:
North Medford's girls are primed for a strong season.
"We think we have a team that can win whatever our district looks like," said Voskes.
Sophomore Estella Gutches and senior Cammeo Ramirez are the top returners, and each ranks in the top six in school history for 5,000 meters and "is super fit," said the coach.
Gutches has a PR of 19:27.2, and Ramirez has gone 19:37.5.
Sophomore Eleanor Nichol (22:01.1 PR) has emerged as well.
A deep sophomore class provides depth, and Pear Blossom Run multi champion Marci Klimek is aboard as an assistant coach.
For the boys, Senior Grant Lulich hasn't missed a day of training and "put a huge amount of miles in over the last year," said Voskes. He showed well in a recent time trial. His PR is 17:25.7.
Junior Jimmy Scull has exhibited a similar work ethic to Lulich, said Voskes, and has set himself apart as well. His PR is 19:06.3.
Junior Michael Maiorano appears ready for a big season and will lead a strong South boys team that returns intact from the 2019 state meet, where the Panthers placed 15th.
"It's been a young team," said coach Josh Wallace. "They lost this last fall as far as regular competition, but they're still young."
Maiorano, fourth at the Southwest Conference meet as a sophomore, lowered his PR by nearly 28 seconds to 15:17.0 during a virtual run last fall.
Juniors Connor Singer (15:45.0 PR), Chase Wallace (17:34.8 PR) and Adam Cannon (17:32.1 PR) and sophomore DJ Scott (16:49.9 PR) fill out the top five.
"I know our guys especially are excited to compete," said Wallace, noting the stop-and-start nature of sports the past year. "We've talked about it being a season that never begins but it never ended, if that's possible."
The South girls are down in numbers but have two mainstays in seniors Emma Schmerbach and Emily Nash.
Schmerbach won the Southwest Conference meet as a freshman and sophomore and was ninth in 2019. She set her PR of 17:58.3 as a freshman.
Nash's PR of 19:49.5 came when she was 10th at the 2019 SWC meet.
When last we saw the Ashland boys, they won the 2019 Class 5A state title with 41 points, ahead of No. 2 Crater, with 81. Those teams lend strength to this hybrid conference season.
Ashland lost state champion EJ Holland and third-place Arlo Davis off that team, but two other top-five placers — Reed Pryor and Cameron Stein — are back as seniors.
"Both are looking good and both are super committed," said coach Pryor. "We've got them doing some bigger mileage these days, so I feel like their engines are in good shape."
Reed Pryor was fourth at state in 2019. His PR is 15:13.5. Stein will run for Oregon as a preferred walk-on. His best is 15:27.2, achieved when he placed fifth at state.
Stein's younger brother, sophomore Nathan (16:37.7 PR), could be "really sharp this year," said Karl Pryor, and junior Vincent Senn will be in the top four with a PR of 16:32.0.
Several juniors and seniors are competing for the fifth through seven spots, "so it's a good place to be," said Karl Pryor.
The Grizzly girls were seventh at state in 2019 and return their full team.
Junior Grace Yaconelli has shown dramatic improvement, knocking more than 2 minutes off her state time in a 5K last month. She was Ashland's sixth runner at state but could be No. 1 this season.
Senior Sage Reddish is the top runner back from state. She was 27th with a PR of 19:44.1. Senior Milan Hague has a 20:07.3 PR and, with Reddish, provides leadership.
Other returners from the state team are junior Kariana Austbo (20:27.1 PR) and sophomores Annika Wells (20:50.5 PR), Violet Hering (21:27.6) and Abigail Bloom (22:10.7).
The Crater boys will be a blend of state-meet veterans and freshmen. Three runners are back from the 2019 5A runner-up squad: sophomore Tyrone Gorze, senior Connor Sutton and junior Tate Broesder.
Gorze cracked the top 10 at state as a freshman with a PR of 15:53.9.
"He was as good as any of our freshmen in the past," said coach Justin Loftus, "and he's actually come quite a bit farther since last year."
Broesder is the No. 2 man off the state team even though his workload is shared with a couple other sports, basketball and golf. He was 35th at state in a PR of 16:45.10. Sutton was five spots back in 16:54.5, his best.
Sophomore Ryder Hvall and junior Tylor Castegnaro add depth, and freshmen Jeffrey Hellmann and Shaun Garnica show considerable promise.
The Comet girls placed fifth at state in 2019 but lost their top three finishers to graduation. Senior Abigail Weber, that team's seventh placer at state, was lost for the season with an ankle injury.
Top returner Taryn Dance, a senior, missed most of her junior season with an injury. Her PR of 20:14.0 came as a freshman.
Sophomores Haylee Baldwin (19:54 PR) and Samantha Payne (20:09.0 at state) are back, as is top junior varsity runner Isabel Kapule (21:21.5 PR), a sophomore. Freshman Lindsey Seibert will also be a factor.
Both the Pirate girls and boys teams appear well-stocked for this unique season.
For girls, most of the team returns from a seventh-place state finish in 2019. Pre-COVID-19, the Pirates had visions of a top-four state trophy, setting up a title run for next year, said Cornet.
The top three individuals — junior Sophia Stubblefield, sophomore Kyla Potratz and freshman Ava Robinson — each set class records for 10,000 meters during the Fourth of July virtual run. Stubblefield's 42:06 rewrote the overall school record as well.
She won the Skyline Conference cross-country meet last year and was seventh at state.
"All three of those were great records," said Cornet, "and yet we did that in July. We took a little time off but have been working hard."
Cross-country PRs for the three over 5,000 meters are: Stubblefield, 18:52.9; Potratz, 19:18.1; Robinson, 22:11.0.
Juniors Heidi Taylor (21:58.6 PR) and Lucy Newell (22:05.7 PR) and senior Shelby Platt (22:41.6) also return from the state squad.
On the boys side, Cornet believes Phoenix, paced by senior Noah Marshall, can be in the top two when conference meet results are compiled.
Marshall placed ninth at state last year and has a PR of 16:21.6. He also qualified for state in track as a sophomore 800-meter runner.
He'll get help from junior Elwood Hosking, who notched a 17:08.0 PR in a July virtual run, and senior Dilan Mathieu (17:33.0 PR). Freshman Orlando Contreras provides added firepower.
"These four are going to lead a group who, when everything's scored out, I think they can be top two in the conference," said Cornet. "Obviously, there isn't a state to qualify for, but we would like to show that when everything's scored out, hey, we would have been there."
Cascade Christian had only two boys and two girls on its team as the season approached, but there was talent at the top.
In a meet in October against larger Southern Oregon schools, junior Jake Sorani was second in a personal-best 16:14.8, and that ranks him second in Class 3A in limited entries on athletic.net.
"He's looking really good and he's really excited about the season," coach Jill Carpenter said of Sorani, who as a sophomore was ninth at state.
The other Challenger boy is Austin Skelton (23:14.5 PR).
For the girls, multisport standout Katelyn Willard (20:57.1 PR) returns. She was eighth in the district in 2019, and will juggle cross-country with soccer during the six-week season.
Her running mate is sophomore Rose Hehn (22.27.0 PR).
St. Mary's went through an uncharacteristic drought in 2019, failing to send any runners — boy or girl — to state. It had been two decades since a girls team hadn't qualified.
The Crusader boys, though young, hoped to qualify last season before coming up short. Four runners form this year's nucleus: sophomore Cody Arnold (18:49.8 PR), juniors Logan Diaz McNeal (18:12.6 PR) and David Noble (18.38.5 PR) and freshman Daniel Heycke.
"They're just within steps of each other during workouts, during time trials," said coach Joe Volk. "That's the exciting thing. How close they are kind of motivates the other to step up and go after it. They push each other along."
Sophomore Addie Jensen (24:15.6 PR) is the top returner for the St. Mary's girls, but senior Sophia Dobry could move to the fore if her schedule permits. Dobry is also a key member of the soccer team.
Dobry has a PR of 20:40.3, established her sophomore season, and would likely be a top-10 threat were there a state meet, said Volk.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or email@example.com.