New state guidance gives green light to HS gridiron

Cottage Grove High School will not field a varsity team this season but will have an 11-man JV team. Meanwhile, Yoncalla and North Douglas will co-op a team, with Elkton playing a 6-man football schedule this season.

On Feb. 10, Governor Kate Brown announced that the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) would be amending its guidance for outdoor contact sports. 

The revision allows schools to resume outdoor contact sports, including high school football, provided the school follows certain health and safety protocols dependent on county risk level. In addition, the participating school must have returned to at least limited in-person instruction on campus.

In a statement, Governor Brown acknowledged, “This has been a difficult year for Oregon’s youth athletes and, as our COVID-19 numbers have dropped, I have been committed to working with our health experts to reevaluate our protocols for sports.”  

Brown added that school sports play an important role in fostering students’ mental, emotional and physical health. “We will proceed with caution, to ensure that teams are following health and safety precautions to protect our athletes, their families and their communities,” Brown said.

Schools in low- and moderate-risk counties were permitted to begin full-contact this past Monday (Feb. 15), with competitions beginning the week of March 1. 

With respect to high- and extreme-risk counties such as Lane County, schools may opt in to outdoor contact sports provided additional protocols are in place.

In such counties, sports programs must offer on-site responsive testing for symptomatic individuals and close contacts, contact information for contact tracing, a waiver identifying health and safety risks, and a commitment to isolation and quarantine if exposed to COVID-19. In addition, schools in high- and extreme-risk counties must be in compliance with state guidance for COVID-19 testing, and they are also required to have at least limited in-person instruction occurring, “with the goal of achieving hybrid or full in-person instruction for students this school year.”

“It is not lost on me that this decision will allow high school football to resume, when too many high school classrooms across Oregon remain empty,” said Brown. “To all the parents of student athletes and coaches who have called and emailed me in the last year asking for school sports to resume, I am challenging you now to devote your energy to making sure in-person academics can resume for your kids, too. If our school gyms, fields and weight rooms are to reopen, we owe it to Oregon’s children to make sure our classrooms, libraries and science labs fully reopen as well.”

Following the change in guidance, Cottage Grove area schools have been working to adjust and move forward with plans for football this season. Yoncalla High School Athletic Director Peter James spoke about the importance of sports to many students.

“Recently, we allowed students back in the school, which has made a tremendous difference in the kids’ attendance, and [their] attitude [toward] academics all around,” said James. “But we still haven’t had sports since March of last year, so there’s a real itch to get back on the field of competition. With that said, we’re still in the pandemic, and there are still those requirements we have to follow — social distancing, wearing masks which, as you can imagine, is pretty tough for sports.

“The kids were so, so excited to hear the news. These kids have been without sports for nearly a year. To get them out on the field or in the gym helps their development and helps against the mental detrimental effects COVID has had on them.”

In adjusting to the changes in athletic regulations, as well as the overall effects of the pandemic, all schools have had to make some changes to their normal football program. Yoncalla has chosen to form an eight-man co-op team with neighboring North Douglas High School team. 

“The co-op is great as our two schools have a history of competitive rivalry; to share the field with them is truly a blessing,” James said of the decision to combine athletes.

North Douglas High School Athletic Director JJ Mast explained the reasoning behind choosing to form a co-op team. “Our numbers were really low. We haven’t been in school. It’s been hard to try and recruit more kids out here. So, for this year only, we’re playing with Yoncalla, [and] it’ll be a Yoncalla-North Douglas football co-op.”

Mast spoke about the plan of attack for collaborating with Yoncalla, explaining that Matt Bragg, Yoncalla’s coach, is going to run the offense using Yoncalla’s offensive formations, and North Douglas will run the North Douglas’s defense, along with special teams.

“We’re just kind of splitting it up, which is good. [Matt and I] went to high school together, so I’ve known Matt a long time, and it will be fun to work with him for the year,” said Mast.

Traditionally, the two schools are rivals, but in the spirit of getting as many student athletes on the field as possible, they made the decision this school year to be allies. As Mast explained, “[Our schools are] bitter rivals, but so far [Yoncalla has] been very welcoming of our kids coming over. It’s a real good group of kids that are out there. 

“I think at this point, people are just happy to get out and get a chance to go compete at something,” said Mast. “We’re very thankful that they were willing to take us on, as our numbers were so short. It’s working out very well so far; I think it’ll be a really positive experience for everybody. And now we know we get to play so it’s even better.”

Elkton High School decided to run a six-man league this year provided health and safety directives allowed for it. Prior to the change in guidance, Athletic Director Andy Boe discussed Elkton’s options. “We’re planning on still running football as is, so that’s a change for us. It seems positive from the news that I’ve heard that there will at least be a path to having contact football. 

“Whatever they say we can do, we’re going to try to pull off, and I just hope they don’t put too many contingencies on it, because it’s a small district, so it’s tough to do some of the things that other places can do.”

Elkton happens to be one of the schools that has kindergarten through 12th grade back in school full time. Boe noted, “We’ve been very, very fortunate. We feel like we have good protocols in place and a good plan, and it’s worked. So, we’ll continue to do those things until either we’re out of the woods or something happens.

“I think everybody’s doing everything they can, it’s just trying to make a slow move here to get back to being normal — so, we’re just hanging on trying to hope for the best.”

Cottage Grove High School, like many schools, has had to make changes to its normally scheduled football program. 

“The plan is, we’re opting in for 11-man traditional tackle football, but Cottage Grove is only going to do JV because our numbers are so low this year. We only had a few seniors come out, [so] we opted to only play JV this year,” said CGHS Athletic Director Matt Myers. “We might play one varsity game just because one of the schools in our league needs another varsity game, so we might play one just to help them have another varsity contest. But other than that, we’re going to play all JV because we just have roughly 20 total players, so it just didn’t make any sense to play varsity this year.

Myers said it wasn’t an easy decision. “But everybody on the coaching staff came to me and said, ‘Look, this is our situation. It’s going to be a safety issue if we play varsity,’ so that’s where we’re at with that. It’s not easy, and not everyone was happy we made that choice, but it just had to happen. Everybody’s adjusting.”

Another issue for all schools is the fact that, at this juncture, spectators will not be allowed at games. But Myers explained there are options for fans who want to watch.

“We have a live streaming camera set up. So, I’m going to let parents know this week that they’ll need to get a subscription to follow the live stream,” Myers said. “That way, they’ll get to watch their kids play because, other than coaches, players, officials and a few volunteers that are going to help run the events, there won’t be anybody else allowed there — so, there will be no way for them to watch their kids unless they go on the live stream.”

Myers said the school is in the process of getting that option set up, which would be good for any fall sport that takes place in the gym or on the turf field at the school.

Fortunately, the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) Network allows schools to broadcast their games via the NFHS Network, allowing those who cannot attend live games due to current regulations the opportunity to tune in to their team’s matches. 

According to Myers, “[The NFHS Network] offered a really good deal to pretty much all the high schools in the state that they would basically let us have the cameras, and they would charge us an installation fee, but there would be no additional costs, like a lease or anything like that. So, a lot of schools jumped on that because we all knew we probably weren’t going to be allowed to have fans at first.”

Another consideration has been vaccinations for coaching staff, which Cottage Grove has had the opportunity to do for some staff. 

“You can learn virtually, but you can’t do a sport virtually. So, some of our coaches have gotten the first shot of the vaccine,” Myers said. “They got put on the list, along with all the other employees that got their first [shot], so most of the people that want the first shot in our district have gotten it, including coaches, which is really nice.”

The governor’s new guidance on contact sports has afforded all of the schools in the area a much-needed glimmer of hope for their student athletes. As the powers that be continue the necessary work to bring athletics back to schools, one message from Governor Brown’s press release offered sobering but valid advice to those involved. 

 “To all of Oregon’s high school athletes: I am asking you now to be leaders in your communities. We’ve given you the chance to play, but with that opportunity comes great responsibility. If COVID-19 numbers spike, we may have to shut down contact sports again,” said Brown. “When you are off the field, set the example for your peers: wear a mask, maintain physical distance, and avoid social gatherings.”

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