Vale High School football coach Jeff Aldred sits in the stands at the field where his team has won two state championships. The silence of the space was in contrast to a normal school-year's afternoon, when he said it would be bustling with foot traffic. (Liliana Frankel/The Enterprise)

Local coaches are trying to stay positive for their players after Covid concerns pushed the start of prep sports back to February.

The Oregon School Activities Association announced that it was again postponing the high school season because of continuing issues with the coronavirus across Oregon. Now, sports practices won’t start until Feb. 8.

“Obviously I like the fact that there’s a date out there, but part of me thinks they’re kind of still kicking the can down the road,” said Jeff Aldred, football coach at Vale High School. “[We’re] just crossing our fingers and hoping that we can go. But the fact that there’s a date on the calendar and the kids have something to look forward to is really important for their mindset.”

“I just think it’s another hit,” said Bill Wortman, principal and football coach at Adrian High School. “I think this has been a roller coaster kind of deal, and I just hope that this is the last downhill and everything’s uphill from here.”

“It’s just unfortunate for students,” said Lee Long, football coach at Nyssa High School. “We’re adults and we had our turn. These students, they’re dealing with something I never had to deal with.”

Prior to Monday’s announcement, prep sports were supposed to resume with the winter sports of basketball, wrestling and swimming on Dec. 28. Football practice was to start on Feb. 22, with practices overlapping two weeks with the end of the winter season. Now, sports will resume with football practices beginning Feb. 8, and up to three weeks’ overlap between seasons. 

According to Aldred, the overlap between seasons is likely to negatively affect students in Vale. 

“You don’t ever want to put kids in a position where they have to choose,” he said. “Especially in a small school, you have to share athletes.”

Aldred also raised concerns about how the delay in seasons would affect athletes’ physical conditioning.

It has now been almost nine months since the last prep game was played in Malheur County. Earlier this fall, schools were allowed to host limited workouts and offseason training, but as of Dec. 3, those allowances became tied to county Covid metrics.

With Malheur County firmly in the extreme risk county designated by a positivity rate of more than 10% and a case count of more than 200 per 100,000 people, workouts were no longer allowed.

“There’s a legitimate risk of injury to have not really competed in any athletics at all since last spring and then for us just to pick up Feb. 8 in the winter,” said Aldred. “It’s a very progressive return to play in a normal year, and I just want to make sure we have time to do it safely.” 

Long expressed his frustration with the difficult imperative to explain to students why Oregon rules are so comparatively restrictive when their friends across the river in Idaho are allowed to compete in full-contact sports. 

“I don’t know how to explain to people why certain programs, athletes, and states can compete and others can’t,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer is.”

Idaho has far fewer restrictions related to Covid than Oregon, but it also has seen more infections.

According to Aldred, for students who get frustrated with not being able to play, full-time work can sometimes seem like the better option. 

“Some of these kids that have been getting a regular paycheck may choose to move on with their life and get a job,” he said. “They’re losing hope.”

For Wortman, the focus remains looking ahead to the possibility, however slim, of game play in February. 

“I think [the new system] is viable for our students if we’re allowed to let them [play]” he said. “If they’re allowed to participate, we’re going to find a way to participate, and that’ll be our number one priority.”

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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