May 17—Pushed back to a May-June timeline to allow more time for coronavirus conditions to improve and vaccinations to become more commonplace, the winter sports season will finally get underway today — albeit in less than ideal conditions.
Masks remain mandatory for athletes and coaches in basketball and wrestling, as well as for swimmers when they're on the pool deck prior to competing in what will essentially be virtual meets at the Medford YMCA.
There are also a host of rule changes adopted to try and lessen issues caused by wearing masks while competing indoors for basketball — providing for more breaks in play — as well as some creative thinking on the part of wrestling programs with the adoption of outdoor dual meets this spring.
And, oh yeah, half the season will be contested after student-athletes are out of school in June.
It all adds up to a unique six-week season of competition in what has already been an unconventional and often challenging high school sports year.
"The end thing is at least we're getting a season and I'm happy that we are," said Eagle Point athletic director and wrestling coach Kacey McNulty. "I'm happy that we're able to get through all of our sports seasons and at least provide opportunities for these guys and girls."
For most winter sports coaches, there wasn't a ton of confidence that this day would come for the 2020-21 school year.
"I think the hardest part because it was moved to a spring season is that, admittedly, no one thought it would happen and we would be here because of the spike in cases and even with all the political pleas," said South Medford girls basketball coach Tom Cole. "I know I had conversations with the kids that the reality is I don't think we're going to play, so if we're not allowed to play, let's talk about things that we can enjoy this spring to make up for it all."
Full-contact indoor sports like basketball and wrestling have been on lockdown since seasons were halted during the 2020 state tournaments. Small pods of kids, with only individual drills allowed, have been allowed off and on in gyms for basketball since last March, and wrestlers have been relegated to lots of conditioning with no contact allowed in that span.
It's only been within the last two weeks that winter sports teams gained a measure of assurance from the Oregon Health Authority that they would have a season this spring, and all that uncertainty has definitely taken a toll on local programs.
"A lot of our older kids have gone and gotten jobs and they're just done with it," said McNulty, whose program numbers of around 30 echo lowered levels at other prominent wrestling schools in the Rogue Valley. "It's a tough year."
Winter sport coaches and athletes went through the paces whenever they could in hopes of being rewarded with a season even though there were no guarantees.
"It's just been a chore all year just to try to keep positive because every time you think something is going your direction, something changes the next week and now you're just trying to keep your head up," said North Medford boys basketball coach Scott Plankenhorn. "Even if you didn't feel like it might happen you still had to tell the kids and yourself that it was going to happen."
"To be honest, I think the boys might have been handling it better than I was," Plankenhorn added of the uncertainty. "They just kept plugging along and doing whatever we brought forward. If it was 45 minutes and six of us, they all showed up and just did it and then a new group would come in and we'd do 45 minutes with them. To be hung out to dry this long to play here in late May, it's been a chore but I think they're ready to go and they're itching to get that first ball handed to us and we'll play first and be on offense. It will be fun."
Yes, you read that right. There will be no jump balls to start games this season. The visiting team gets the ball to start and the game moves on from there. In the case of an overtime, a coin flip will decide opening possession.
Also to lessen potential exposure, players will be tasked with retrieving the basketball on dead ball situations, with no referee assistance, for throw-ins. On free throws, the shooter's teammates will corral the ball and return it for any ensuing attempt.
Maybe more noticeable will be the length of timeouts — 30-second timeouts will now be 45 seconds and 60-second timeouts bump to 90 seconds — as well as the introduction of "media timeouts" that will halt the game for a 90-second break on the first dead ball after four minutes have been played in each of the four quarters.
"It's going to be really awkward in everybody's first game," said Crater girls basketball coach Scott Dippel, "but I really think after we get through the first game it's not going to be as disruptive. When we just read through them now, we're like, man, this game is going to be six hours long and going to have all these breaks in it, but I think it will be fine and I'm not worried about it being disruptive."
The idea with all these alterations in basketball is to give the masked players more time to replenish their oxygen levels after sprinting back and forth on the court in indoor conditions. Players and coaches will also have special assigned seating for social distancing and to limit exposure.
"It's not easy to play in the dang things, that's all I can tell you," Plankenhorn said of the masks. "It's hard to coach in them, too, so if there's timeouts that they can get some water and at least get them off while they're drinking water and get some air in, it might help benefit that stuff, so that's good."
While that may be of some help in basketball, the sport of wrestling simply doesn't allow for such breaks. Barring a pin or overtime, wrestlers compete in three 2-minute rounds for their matches.
"You can't just take a break midway through a round," said McNulty. "Wrestling is an endurance sport. We're trying to fatigue our opponent and break their will through exerting them so it's going to be a little bit tricky."
Wearing masks through it all obviously throws another wrench into the sport, which won't include handshakes between competitors or the winner's arm raised by the referee this season under current COVID-19 accommodations.
"Obviously, kids don't like the masks, nobody likes the masks," said McNulty. "It's actually fortunate that the masks do come down because we would probably have a lot of emergency situations where kids are hyperventilating. That distance runner that passed out in Bend — well wrestling is the same thing except it's kind of a cross between an aerobic and anaerobic sport where you have flurries of action and then you're back into what I would call a jog. So you have sprints and jogs combined and it's for six minutes and there's no timeouts. You get a little breather between rounds but that's about it, so for a kid to try to get his oxygen levels back with a mask on is going to be really difficult."
To assist with getting fresh air, as well as allow for more spectators since there is a 15% capacity limit in place for any venue (indoor or outdoor), wrestling programs across the Rogue Valley will be taking their mats out to their football fields as the weather allows.
"Hopefully we don't get this opportunity again," said McNulty of a sport that typically takes place from December through February, "but it will be kind of fun to have wrestling duals underneath the lights out in the stadium."
"We have to move our mats anyways," he added. "Instead of putting them in a gymnasium we'll put them out on the football field, so I don't see that as being problematic."
To avoid issues with potential hot weather in June, some dual meets will begin a little later than usual. But it will all be worth it, according to Crater wrestling coach Greg Haga.
"If it's too hot we'll postpone it a little bit," said Haga, "but it's just going to be kind of fun to have something outside like that. Our coaching staff and our kids, we're just grateful to have a season and to be able to do this because there was a time when we were looking at this like, gosh, there's no way. I'm just happy that we can have a season because I've got some seniors to where it's nice to be able to put a senior year on their resume and not end it to where it's just over."
Unfortunately, coaches like Cole, Dippel and Crater boys basketball coach Chris Schmerbach know all about having a season end without notice. Each program advanced to the state semifinals last year when COVID-19 concerns caused the cancellation of their tournament runs and championship hopes.
"We never really had any closure to last year, that was the part that was super frustrating," said Cole. "It was so eerie. We felt so good, we had made it into the semifinals and felt so good about playing for a state championship and then it ends, you've got nothing. For all these kids it's just been an interesting process."
Cole's squad was in prime position for a state championship and was set to return six seniors until it was learned recently that Shakia Teague-Perry will sit out the season to repair a prior torn meniscus.
With the likes of Kaili Chamberlin, Toni Coleman, Emma Schmerbach, Bella Stone and Laini Dahlin still standing for a Class of 2021 group that has been instrumental in the Panthers return to championship form, Cole remains confident but still uneasy entering this spring season.
South Medford also boasts junior standouts Sierra Logue and Tanesha Coley and will finally get to see elite Class of 2023 recruit Donovyn Hunter in uniform after knee surgery curtailed her freshman campaign.
"There are all these timelines competing against you when you're talking about seniors who have completed their academic requirements and it's the middle of May and June when the weather's turning 90 degrees," said Cole. "What I'm counting on is that factor that they're going to want to come out and prove that, hey, we were really one of those South Medford teams that people can remember. I think they did a lot last year and I was really proud of them, they got us back on top in the conference and got us into the semifinals. Knowing these kids, I think that will happen."
The Southern Oregon Conference will again be in play for the local Class 6A and 5A programs, although the South Medford girls have had to fill some voids in their schedule with Eagle Point and Ashland bowing out of league matchups and Roseburg unable to play Monday due to COVID-19 issues.
Teams are allowed 12 league games and 14 overall before culmination weeks, and the Panthers have now lost five league games. Fortunately, Cole was able to schedule three of the state's best teams for a June 2-4 road trip that includes dates at Beaverton, Grant and West Linn.
Crater's boys basketball team will be minus senior McDonald's All-American Nate Bittle, who played during the traditional basketball season at Prolific Prep in California, but the Comets still boast a talented crew headlined by Hunter Chubb that should stir things up this season.
Crater's girls basketball team lost half of its expected senior class but maintained Madison Dutkiewicz, Teya Amidei and Allison Waters to go with key junior contributor McKenzie Hirsch and sophomores Kate Stidham and Kendra Bittle.
Another junior hopeful, Kayleigh Gugliotta, is expected to miss the season after sustaining an injury during her club soccer season.
"We are going to be real young, about a year quicker than maybe I anticipated," said Dippel. "We'll find out quickly how they'll respond, though. I spent all year saying, man, I wish we had a game and so now we start with three games in the first week after one week of practice."
Plankenhorn's troops stand to be a little better off than most given the experience returning in seniors Landon Ellis and Nick Karrick and juniors Bryce Dyer and Trey Neff.
"We'll see after our first game and how it all goes," Plankenhorn said, "but I'm definitely excited about the core group that's going to be playing. Our ability to play inside-out and shoot the ball and get to the rim and create some mismatches and finish around the bucket, it's going to be exciting for sure."
Across town, the South Medford boys basketball team expects to be anchored by third-year starting junior point guard Junior Sleezer and seniors Jeremy Gaut, Jude Pannell and Isaiah McNaught, with a boost from junior Devin Malcolm, an electrifying junior transfer from Butte Falls.
Haga calls his team's starting lineup "pretty salty," and for good reason. The Comets, who placed fourth at state last year, return state runners-up Jimmy Jordahl and Kabb Christensen as well as state placers Kellen Kerrigan and Matthew Bolanos among a pretty complete crew.
At Eagle Point, returning girls state champion Shayla McNulty and state qualifier Kyle O'Neil are the lone seniors for a group that McNulty said has a lot of mat experience beyond its years and has been able to pick up speed quickly despite the quick turnaround in seasons.
The Eagles also are bringing back their swimming program, with 14 in tow this spring. McNulty said the Medford YMCA is allowing 24 swimmers into the facility at a time, so the best-case scenario at the moment is to hold virtual meets where teams rotate in and out through the day.
"It takes that competitive edge kind of out of it," McNulty said. "It would be the same as a track meet where you have sprinters going at separate times so they're not competing against somebody else. There can be a lot of change if you get that competitive edge so that's concerning. But at this point, I think we're all just happy we can have something for these kids."