High school sports in the area are making a long-awaited return, and excitement has ramped up as students prepare to resume competition next week.
However, for volleyball players and coaches in Benton County and parts of Linn County, a return to the court isn’t guaranteed anytime soon.
That’s because of the intersecting plans put forward by the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon School Activities Association.
Earlier this month, the OHA gave the go-ahead for traditional fall sports — cross-country, football, soccer and volleyball — to begin practicing and OSAA unveiled a timeline for soccer and volleyball matches to resume March 1, football games to begin March 3 and cross-country meets on March 5.
But volleyball is considered an indoor contact sport, and only counties that fall below the “extreme-risk” pandemic designation may resume full practices and competition according to state guidelines.
Linn County dropped from extreme-risk to moderate-risk earlier this week, but Benton Country remains at extreme-risk. Schools that fall under the extreme-risk umbrella cannot begin competition until the county's risk level drops, and practice scenarios are extremely limited as a result.
For schools in Benton County — and some in Linn County — the circumstances have created a difficult wait-and-see scenario. There is a sense that the recent surge in cases at Oregon State University may make it unrealistic to expect Benton County to drop out of extreme-risk territory anytime soon.
“We’re very concerned,” Crescent Valley athletic director Mark Henderson said. “All of the Benton Country AD’s are concerned. I know that at least a couple of us have emailed OHA with our concerns. Specifically around OSU, and their numbers. We really want our volleyball teams to have a season. It’s not looking real positive right now.”
As of now, the schools that are affected by state health guidelines are able to have up to six volleyball players practicing indoors at once for sessions that run a maximum of 45 minutes.
That has forced coaches to get creative in order to get each player equal time in the gym. Kari Morrow, who is in her first year as head coach at Corvallis High, has opted to stagger days for her 30 athletes, with groups of six alternating each day.
Morrow and the players are thrilled to be back practicing after such a long layoff. But she also acknowledges the difficulties of the situation as a first-year coach as having six players in the gym at once is great for skill development, but makes it nearly impossible to implement her system.
“We’re now waiting for the March 9 metric evaluation to see if we drop to high-risk,” Morrow said. “If we do, I will have potentially only four practices to get a varsity team that has never played together ready for a match."
Most of the area schools have seen a drop-off in participation across all sports because of the circumstances created by the pandemic. Some students are weighing the value of a shortened season, while the families of others have health concerns about them playing.
“They’ve been kind of discouraged, I think, because they want to play,” Morrow said. “We couldn’t play when we were supposed to play and we couldn’t have any open gyms in the spring last year. There’s all this weirdness and I’ve had four seniors opt not to play at all who were on the team last year. I think they’re just sort of over this. They’re done with this; they’re trying to move on and make some semblance of their senior year.”
Henderson said Crescent Valley’s head volleyball coach, Troy Shorey, has been coaching nearly four hour practices in order to get each of CV’s volleyball players adequate gym time every day.
The problem isn’t just limited to schools located in Benton County, though. West Albany and South Albany each draw students from Linn and Benton counties, and thus are operating under the guidelines of whichever county has the greater risk level. So until Benton County’s risk level drops, those two schools are limited to six athletes in the gym at a time as well.
“We just do that out of an overabundance of caution,” West Albany athletic director Patrick Richards said. “We’ve got kids moving back and forth between counties and we need to be careful and make sure we do things the right way.”
West Albany and South Albany are both coming off of successful 2019 seasons that resulted in trips to the postseason, and both are eager to keep the momentum of their respective programs going whenever they are able to return to competition.
But South has not played a match in 483 days, and even with seven varsity returners and five seniors, coach Kelle Angel is concerned about the potential scenario of playing a match without the RedHawks having practiced as a full team.
“It is what it is — those are the guidelines and we don’t get to make them,” Angel said. “We’re really trying to make the best of it.”
After finishing the 2019 season as the No. 7-ranked team in 5A, the RedHawks obviously have hope of continuing to produce positive results on the court whenever they are able to return to competition.
But more than anything, Angel just wants South’s athletes to enjoy whatever time they get together and have fun, despite whatever circumstances they face.
“The kids have been amazing,” Angel said. “They come in and don’t complain; they work their tails off for 45 minutes. They’re smiling. That’s the part I try to focus on. I really hope at some point they get the competition they’re craving. They want to play; I hope we can get them that at some point. But I’m super proud of the way they have handled this whole situation.”
Jarrid Denney can be reached at 541-521-3214 or via email at Jarrid.Denney@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @jarrid_denney