Vale High School football coach Jeff Aldred talks to his team during a practice. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)
VALE – There was an open spot in the field where brown grass peeked but on the horizon a storm promised snow Thursday as the Vale varsity football team practiced a series of offensive plays.
The field was muddy and cold and the only thing familiar about the scene was the helmets and the footballs.
Vale football coach Jeff Aldred can relate.
Occasionally the sensation, vague and distant but there nonetheless, descends that he shouldn’t be coaching and his team shouldn’t be practicing now. In the snow. In February.
“You really feel like you are out of place,” said Aldred.
Yet the Vikings are practicing, and they are gearing up for a season that will be a far cry from where they were just a few short weeks ago.
Still, the world does seem a little different now.
A central challenge, Aldred said, for his coaching staff will be the search to overcome the strangeness of a four-game season that begins Friday, March 5.
“We’ve got to do our best to try to make it seem as normal as possible,” said Aldred.
Last week, Aldred said he was glad to be back on the practice field.
He said the Vikings will have nine returning starters – four on offense and five on defense – for the four-week season.
Aldred said there are still a “few questions marks” regarding who will be in what position when the season begins but overall, he is pleased with his squad’s talent.
Viking senior fullback Vicente Arteaga said he’s also happy to finally be back on the practice field.
“It feels good. Anything is better than nothing. I feel everyone here is happy to be here,” said Arteaga.
The four-week grid season will be new in other ways for local prep athletes.
The Malheur County teams will compete inside a hybrid Oregon School Activities Association conference in the spring that includes teams from the 3A Eastern Oregon League – Vale and Nyssa – with football squads from the 4A Greater Oregon League – La Grande, Ontario and Baker City. Each team will play a four-game league schedule with room to add a fifth, at-large, game. There will be no playoffs.
The hybrid league will be the norm going forward, said Aldred. That means, he said, the 2021 fall football season – if it happens – will see local teams compete inside the hybrid league. At playoff time, teams in the two conferences will revert to their 4A or 3A classifications.
Aldred said the change wasn’t unexpected and will not be a major factor in competition.
“These are teams we play a lot of times anyway in non-conference,” he said.
Another major change will be a rule that dictates no spectators at football games. During games players will also have to adhere to other Covid restrictions such as wearing masks when on the sidelines.
Local football games, said Aldred, will be live streamed on the National Federation of High Sports web site.
“We have installed a camera system to broadcast our home football and they will be free for viewing this school year on the NFHS Network,” said Tom Snook, Vale High School athletic director.
To some extent, said Aldred, schedules are mostly set but scenarios change often. As of last week, he said Vale will play its first game against Baker at home. Over the next three weeks the Vikings will play La Grande at home, then travel to Ontario and to Nyssa.
Aldred said just over 30 Vikings – including eight seniors – will suit up for the season.
“Our focus is to give the eight seniors the best experience we can,” said Aldred.
Some key players Aldred identified who will hit the grass for the Vikings in the spring include junior quarterback Tanner Steele, junior receiver John Wolfe, Arteaga, senior wide receiver Trent Aldred and linemen William Tolman, a junior, and Payton Kelso, a senior.
Vale ended the 2019 season with a 6-5 record, beat Yamhill-Carlton in a first-round playoff game but lost to Santiam Christian in the quarterfinals.
In Nyssa, football coach Lee Long said the Bulldogs welcomed more than 30 prep athletes to the spring roster, including several players with solid varsity experience.
Senior running back Caleb Benson along with senior lineman Bryan Flores and junior quarterback Landon McDowall will provide the Bulldogs with a core group of veterans.
“We also picked up some sophomores that are pretty darn good players,” said Long.
In 2019 the Bulldogs finished 5-4 and reached the first ground of the Class 3A playoff before losing to Santiam Christian.
Long said the short season isn’t “what it usually is.”
“Part of me, though, is grateful we get to play. It will truly be like a spring ball season, which is OK,” said Long.
The Bulldogs, said Long, are ready for the season.
“It is unprecedented times. But we are going to practice and get ready and whatever happens we will be ready,” said Long.
Adrian football coach Bill Wortman said the Class 1A Antelopes will field another “championship-caliber team” this spring.
The Antelopes, part of the High Desert League, are no strangers to postseason success. The 2019 edition of the Antelopes finished with a perfect 13-0 record and defeated St. Paul to claim the Class 1A, eight-man state championship.
So far Wortman said the Antelopes have five games scheduled for the spring season.
He said the Antelopes will play Ione March 5 at 1 p.m. in Adrian then face Pilot Rock March 12 at home at 6 p.m.
On March 19 Adrian will host Union at 7 p.m. before traveling north to play Imbler March 26 at 2 p.m. Pacific Time. On April 2, Adrian will travel Dufur for a 7 p.m. game.
Wortman said Adrian is in the process of scheduling a final game April 9 against an undetermined opponent.
He said the Antelopes will have experience and talent, led by junior quarterback Conley Martin, Class 1A co-player of the year in 2019.
“I am just excited we get to perform a little bit,” said Wortman.
In the past, players from Adrian and Jordan Valley filled out the Antelope roster but that won’t be the case for the spring season, said Wortman. The OSAA split up the football co-op between Adrian and Jordan Valley last spring.
“They split up a couple of the co-ops because, at one point, the cut off number was 89 but they boosted it up for a certain number of bigger schools struggling to fill 11-man teams. We were over the limit with Adrian and Jordan Valley combined,” said Wortman.
Jordan Valley doesn’t have the numbers to field a football team in the spring.
In Ontario, head coach Greg Simmons, said the Tigers are “ready to get back at it.”
Ontario, however, will begin the season without a veteran corps of seniors, including impact-player and quarterback Kenji Teramura, lost to graduation. The senior athletes who graduated, said Simmons, furnished the Tigers with a solid pool of experience.
“It was a small senior class but everyone one of those seniors were big contributors,” said Simmons.
Simmons said Ontario will face plenty of tough competition.
“La Grande was state champs last year and Baker will have a solid group. Nyssa and Vale, every time we’ve played either of those teams it is always competitive,” said Simmons.
In 2019, the Tigers did not win a game and finished 0-8 overall.
New tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]
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