One year ago, in my first week as the Baker City Herald’s sports editor, I helped cover the Class 1A state basketball tournaments at Baker High School.

In the span of four days I went to over 12 games, sitting in crowded bleachers, watching each game unfold.

Fast forward 52 weeks — and a global pandemic — later, and I was back in the BHS gym to cover a Baker volleyball match. I knew about the drastic changes I would see. Masks. Athletes and volunteers distanced. But I was surprised by how much one other difference affected me — the eerie silence of the stands, with no spectators cheering.

The absence of fan noise is something professional athletes have been dealing with for months. When the NFL returned back in August, the approach varied depending on the stadium. Some opened with limited fan capacity, some played recorded fan noise through their sound systems. Regardless, it didn’t feel even close to seasons past.

“The atmosphere from the time we came out of the tunnel was unlike anything any of us have felt,” New England Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty told NBC’s Peter King. “You can’t really envision what an NFL game is like without fans. This felt more like a high school scrimmage. Maybe you travel somewhere for a scrimmage, and your parents come, but no other fans.”

In Baker County, and elsewhere in Oregon, we’re seeing high school athletes back in competition for the first time in a year.

Although not yet a parent, I can relate to the athletes who are fortunate enough to have their parents watching them this month on local fields and courts.

I remember meeting a dad at one of the 1A tournament games in 2020. He couldn’t have been more proud as he talked about his son, a junior, how much he, the dad, loved basketball but even more how much he enjoyed never missing one of his son’s games. What he shared with me that day is a story that could be told from so many parents’ perspective, in Baker City and elsewhere.

I fully support allowing a limited number of fans, mainly parents, to attend games as we try to get through the pandemic. In the meantime, other fans can still watch events, most of which, at the middle school and high school level, are being shown live on various online platforms.

The return of sports for the kids is a welcome sight. It is vital for students to have a chance to participate in sports, for the physical benefits but also because it’s great for their mental health.

For me, being able to walk into Baker High School or to the Sports Complex, covering these events and telling stories that are bigger than the sports themselves, I am beaming with excitement.

Eventually, I know, there will be a moment when it truly feels normal again, when I’m among a crowd of parents, students and other fans, trying to collect my own thoughts during the wildest moments of the game and struggling due to the cacophony from the crowd. I know that moment might still be months away. But one thing is certain — fans are imperative at the high school level, and I just didn’t realize the magnitude of their absence until sports finally returned after nearly a year of being away.

Corey Kirk is sports editor for the Baker City Herald.

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