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Starting season in the winter has caused some issues for Crook County High School team

It's been a long wait, but the 2020 OSAA fall sports season is finally getting underway, even though it is now 2021.

In a season that almost didn't happen, the Crook County Cowboys are ready to go. The Cowboys played 7-on-7 football in the fall, that is until the governor changed the rules, shutting down the opportunity with one game to go. The Cowboys started practice for the current season on Monday, Feb. 8, but did not know until Wednesday, Feb. 10 whether or not there would actually be a season.

"We went from having no contact football to the next day having contact football and just as easy that could be taken away from us tomorrow," said Crook County head coach Ryan Cochran. "So, we are just going to focus on taking advantage of the opportunities that we have and doing the very best that we can. That's been our focus every year, but especially this year. We used to say, hey, nothing's ever guaranteed, focus on this week, and like all things when we hear stuff, it doesn't really impact us until it directly affects us. Now, kids understand that next week is not guaranteed, so make the most out of it. That's been our mindset from the very beginning, but now we have proof."

Cochran said that as soon as the announcement came from the governor's office that even teams in high and extreme risk counties would be allowed to play tackle football, provided the school district opted in, that players were ecstatic.

"There was a huge attitude change when we found out that we could play," Cochran said. "Being in limbo is a hard situation. It didn't look good there for a while, so when it finally came out that tackle football was a go, it was a spark to coaches, spark to players, spark in families. I've had multiple parents call and say, man we can see such a difference in our kids. Just having that opportunity for them has changed them."

Still, it is not going to be a normal football season. To begin with, teams will only get a five- or six-week season with no post-season play. In addition, COVID-19 protocols have changed the way teams practice. And, of course, there is the constant possibility that someone on the team could get sick, forcing games to be canceled, or that another team could cancel at the last minute.

"You can focus on the positives or the negatives," Cochran said. "There are a lot more things that we have to do and figure out because of COVID. But we are willing to do that to make sure our guys have a season. It's a team sport and you want unity and team breaks and those things. Those are hard habits to break, but you know our protocols are changing a little bit and guys are getting used to them. There are some stumbling blocks, but we are just happy to have a season. So, we are being as flexible as possible."

Cochran said that starting football practice during the winter has also caused some challenges, but that the team has responded well.

"We have found out why we don't have fall sports in the middle of winter," he said. "We have had some snow issues, rain issues, hail, cold, all of the above, but our kids are pretty resilient, and we are making the best of situations and being pretty flexible."

Cochran also noted that the Cowboys are fortunate to have more players out for football than the rest of the teams in the Tri-Valley Conference. Crook County has nearly 60 players out, while several of the other teams in the league do not have enough players to have a JV team. That has created a problem for the Cowboys when it comes to picking up JV games, but they have been able to schedule to play La Pine in a JV game this week and are scheduled to play Madras and Sweet Home later in the year. However, there is still at least one opening in the JV schedule.

Cochran is happy with how well practice is going and with the leadership that the seniors are showing.

"A lot of your leadership comes from those seniors," he said. "It was really tough when they didn't know if they were going to have a senior season, and it really became a pretty tight group, especially with those older players. They recognize that our season is not going to be so long, so we have to make the best of the situation."

The Cowboys' strength is expected to be with their skill players, however, Cochran said that several players who did not play last season have come back out, and the line situation is better than the coaches had expected.

He listed senior quarterback Hogan Smith and senior receiver/defensive back Treyvn Smith as the leaders among the skill position players, while Hayden Hilderbrand and Eric Schmidts have become the leaders among the team's linemen.

"Hogan Smith has definitely done an excellent job, working hard to progress at quarterback," Cochran said. "He was a starting corner for us last year. Trevyn Smith has been a three-year starter for us and has done some amazing things. He has done a little bit of switching positions, so he's having to learn a new area, and he has really stepped up. And, up front our two anchors, Hilderbrand and Schmidts, both are anchoring our line and kind of bringing our younger guys along."

The Cowboys played in a jamboree Friday against Redmond and Ridgeview, and Cochran said that the team will be ready for their opening game this Friday at North Marion.

"Kind of like all jamborees, we did some things good and we did some things that we have to work on," he said. "We came out healthy, so that was a big positive. Conditioning was a major factor, so we are going to be focusing on that, and we have lots and lots of cleanup to do."

Crook County did not know if Friday's game would happen or not until early last week, as North Marion, like much of the Tri-Valley Conference, has been struggling with numbers. Crook County plays football in the 4A Tri-Valley Conference but competes in the 5A Intermountain Conference in other sports.

The Huskies are the defending district champions and advanced to the quarterfinals at the 2019 Class 4A state championships, while the Cowboys did not reach the playoffs. But in many ways, the 2019 season seems like eons ago. Game time is 7 p.m.

The Cowboys will play their first home game Friday, March 12 against Molalla. Due to COVID protocol restrictions, there are no fans allowed to attend. A livestream broadcast of the game is being planned through the CCHS Facebook and YouTube platforms.

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