Boys soccer

Richie Rodriguez, front, dribbles against the defense of Giacoma Rigueiro during a Baker boys soccer practice in October 2020. At far right is Dysan Robb. Also in the background are Wyatt Hawkins, left, and Lincoln Nemec.

Buell Gonzales Jr. already knew that volleyball, soccer and cross-country teams at Baker High School could start practicing Feb. 22 to prepare for a five-week season that could include competition with other schools starting March 1.

Football was a different matter.

At least it was until early Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 10.

That’s when Gonzales, the Baker School District’s athletic director, and his counterparts across Oregon learned that Gov. Kate Brown had decided that in counties at lower or moderate risk for COVID-19 spread based on state standards, high school football teams could also start practicing with full contact (noncontact practices are allowed now).

Baker County moves into the lower-risk category on Friday, Feb. 12. Regular football practices can start that day, as the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) had tentatively set Feb. 8 as the first date for practices, giving football players an extra two weeks before games potentially start March 1.

Late last year OSAA decided on a slate of abbreviated sports seasons this spring, starting with the traditional fall sports — football, volleyball, cross-country and soccer.

During a virtual Zoom meeting on Monday, Feb. 8, the OSAA executive board discussed the season for fall sports.

Gonzales followed the meeting.

“I felt pretty good, it was stuff that we had already anticipated with our deciphering of the OHA’s (Oregon Health Authority) guidance,” he said. “That’s basically what everybody in high school athletics has done for the past eleven months.”

Soccer players will be required to wear masks.

For cross-country, the OSAA board recommends that runners from no more than two schools be allowed on a course at one time.

Gonzales said he thinks Baker and other schools could comply with that rule and still host meets with more than two schools.

“We would have other teams come here and run the same course but they’ll do it like a half-hour or 45 minutes after the two teams clear out,” Gonzales said.

As for volleyball, Baker County’s drop Friday to the lower-risk category means practices can start Feb. 22.

“We are ready to go, I feel really good where we are at with volleyball,” Gonzales said.

He said Baker Middle School teams will follow the same state guidance, with practices starting Feb. 22.

At both the high school and middle school level, a potential challenge will be scheduling games and matches against other schools, particularly volleyball and football, and deciding where those will happen.

“Who do we play? How do we travel? Why can’t we host? It’s exactly the same,” Gonzales said. “Our middle school and high school sports are in the exact same boat.”

A complicating factor is that adjoining counties can be, and often have been, at different risk levels, meaning schools in one county might be eligible to practice and play, while those in another county are not.

This is a potential issue for Baker schools.

The tentative volleyball schedule, for instance, includes nine matches between March 1 and April 3. But eight of those matches would be against Ontario, Nyssa, Vale and La Grande. Ontario, Vale and Nyssa are all in Malheur County, which remains in the extreme-risk category, which means volleyball practice can’t start. The same is true for La Grande, which is in Union County, also at the extreme-risk level.

Schools in counties at extreme risk can begin football but they must meet certain requirements, including offering on-site rapid testing for people with COVID-19 symptoms and close contacts.

Despite the challenges, Gonzales said he’s pleased with the progress the OSAA and the state have made.

“The OSAA has done a great job in serving our district as well as the rest of the student athletes in the state,” he said. “We are going to provide opportunities for our kids to experience those things that they have been missing. We are at the precipice with things that we’ve talked about to this point, in the next two weeks it’s all going to happen.”

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