Nyssa and Baker are soon to meet again on the field, where they will open the soccer season with a match. (The Baker City Herald/S.John Collins).

VALE – High schools in Malheur County can proceed with soccer and cross country competition but volleyball remains on hold as Covid rates remain too high in the community.

The Oregon School Activities Association said practices could start as planned on Feb. 22 with a six-week season scheduled to start March 1.

Volleyball players will be sitting this season out because of the county’s “extreme” Covid risk. And the fate of the football season is still uncertain, with clarification possible by the end of this week when Gov. Kate Brown is expected to announce any changes in statewide prohibitions on contact sports.

“It’s typical, kicking the can down the road,” said Vale High School football coach Jeff Aldred. “They’re running out of options.”

“We're anticipating, based on the conversations, some type of changes to the contact sports guidance (from the Oregon Health Authority) in the next couple of days,” OSAA Executive Director Peter Weber said in a press release. “We don't know what those changes are. But any change would be an improvement to where they are now.”

Weber said that the issue with volleyball was not that it was a medium-contact sport, but rather that it is an indoor sport. He said that during the extended preseason which has preceded formal athletic competition this school year, some volleyball teams in extreme risk counties had taken to practicing outside, and that outdoor play would continue to be possible. 

At Vale High School, which typically performs strongly in volleyball, Athletic Director Tom Snook said that about 30 students would’ve joined the volleyball teams – but he’s not entirely surprised that the indoor version of the sport has been disallowed.

“Until Malheur County can get out of extreme (risk), our kids aren’t going to get to do anything indoors,” he said, allowing that it was also possible the state might shift metrics or guidance.

Vale volleyball coach Shannon Steele said that the idea of outdoor play was likely unrealistic. She wasn’t sure about the other option OSAA provided, in which schools could apply to postpone their seasons.

“(It) would be very hard to do because seasons would overlap and we have a lot of multi-sport athletes, so I don’t know how they’re thinking that is going to work,” Steele said.

At Nyssa High School, boys’ soccer coach Steven Escobedo, who also teaches English language development, said that he was excited by the prospect of starting the season. 

“We have a pretty young team this year, as it looks right now,” Escobedo said. “We’re going to have one returning senior, Javier Castro. We want to have a good year for him. He’s put in four solid years on our varsity team. We’ll start conditioning (soon) and then get into it.”

Escobedo said that while playing with masks on would represent a big change from previous seasons, he’s glad that his team of around 15 players can now practice together, after a series of fall practices where they were limited to 10-person cohorts. 

“The kids are just excited and we’re excited to be on the field,” he said. 

At Ontario High School, where the boys' varsity soccer team was league champion for the past two seasons and is hoping for a "three-peat," coach Jaime Gonzalez said that the return of the season represented "a light at the end of the tunnel" and extra motivation for his kids to do well in school. The varsity team will have nine returning seniors, the biggest group Gonzalez can remember.

"A lot of these boys have been involved with the club soccer team since they were about 11 or 12 years old," he said. "This is a big year for them, not only graduating, but also hopefully going on to play soccer at college as well."

A future meeting of the Oregon School Activities Association will decide the format of the ongoing sports’ “culminating weeks,” which will replace the usual playoffs and championships. With the existing limits on gatherings, coordinating those events presents a logistical challenge. 

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

Previous coverage:

Sports teams at Malheur County Schools face new season schedules

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