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Glad to be part of new team approach for our newspapers' local sports coverage

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Lon AustinHigh School athletics are back, and as of right now, things are going to be much closer to normal than they have been since March of 2020.

However, that doesn't mean that things are completely back to normal.

First, let's talk about masks.

On Friday, Aug. 13, Gov. Kate Brown's latest indoor mask mandate went into effect. So, what does that actually mean for high school athletics? Well, that depends on what school district an athlete resides in. The governor's mandate allows athletes to both practice and play without wearing a mask. But, the mandate also allows individual school districts to implement mask mandates for athletics. That means that some athletes may be required to wear masks while others are not. In all cases, an athlete is free to wear a mask if they so desire, although I wouldn't expect many athletes to voluntarily wear masks.

My reading of the mask mandate would seem to indicate that coaches of indoor sports will still have to wear masks, and it is almost certain that spectators will be required to mask up, at least according to the Oregon Health Authority and the governor. However, if last Monday's Crook County High School school board meeting is any indication, that may be a difficult mandate to enforce.

As I'm sure many of you are aware, I'm not a big fan of masks. They make coaching difficult as players can't see your face. It makes it hard to communicate, and it makes it hard for a student to know if you are happy with their performance, neutral, or possibly even angry about something. I'm pretty big and have been told that I can be imposing, so the last thing I want is for an athlete to misconstrue my body language or something I say.

I also don't like masks for work. What I found last year is that a mask makes photography very difficult. Air escapes over the top of the mask and it fogs the viewing screen on the camera. That means that all too often you are actually shooting blind. Last year about all I knew at times was what direction the camera was pointing. I couldn't tell if my subject was in focus at least half the time, nor could I tell at times if I even had the subject I wanted completely in the photo. The end result was that I had to take more photos than normal and was still not happy with the quality of my work. More photos also means more time sorting those photos, so if I had my druthers, I wouldn't wear a mask again.

I am not looking forward to that eventuality. Fortunately, as of now, the mask mandates are only for indoors, and hopefully they will be short term.

On a happier note, as of right now, there will once again be state playoffs. Yes, I realize that there were some unsanctioned state tournaments during the previous COVID-changed sports seasons. However, they did not occur in every sport, at least with the larger school classifications. Even where there were tournaments, they weren't official. That's good for the kids. It's about time that some degree of normality has returned to their lives. I am looking forward to seeing exactly what local schools can do with the opportunity.

With a new head coach, can Crook County's football team reach the playoffs? With a year of experience at the 4A level, can Madras football return to the playoffs? How about Culver? They were very competitive last year; is this the year they finally reach the postseason?

As is always the case when a new season starts, teams are filled with optimism. Crook County won the Intermountain Conference volleyball regular season and tournament a year ago. Can they return to form and challenge for a state title? How about the Madras boys soccer team? They have enough experience back that they could be very good. The same thing goes for other sports at all the Central Oregon schools.

Crook County football is far from the only local team to have a new head coach. The CCHS boys soccer coach is new, Culver has new head football and volleyball coaches, and Madras has a new head volleyball coach.

Practice just started on Monday, and as of today, every team in the state is still undefeated and most believe that they can put together a winning record. Here's hoping that the school year is as normal as possible and that athletics continue. Because right now things are still looking positive.

Now for some other big news.

You may have noticed there's a new byline on the sports page today. Here's the story behind that.

In March 2020, the pandemic shut down much of our world. The economies of many businesses, including newspapers, took a big hit. With prep sports eliminated, our company decided to let go nearly all of our sports reporters. I was set to retire in June, so it wasn't that big of deal to me.

However, at the Central Oregonian and Madras Pioneer, it was decided to do whatever we could to maintain a sports section. I agreed to work part time and to cover both Crook and Jefferson county sports the best we could, leaving page layout to others.

That was an oftentimes difficult task. This past spring, as prep sports returned and I attempted to cover sports in Prineville, Madras and Culver, some things got left out. It is really tough to be at sports events in two places at the same time, even with communities as close together as Madras and Culver. Throw Prineville into the mix and there is no way that you can expect to go to half a ball game in Madras and still make it to Prineville in time to catch the second half.

It was difficult, but the idea was to do our best to maintain a sports section and, with the economy improving and prep seasons back to relative this fall, bring in a full-time sports reporter/editor to work at both papers. My plan is to continue helping out part-time, as that's all I want to do.

It's exciting to note that's exactly what's happened. Andy Dieckhoff is the new sports editor, and I'm eager to work with him. I will shift my focus to mostly covering Crook County sports but will also help both papers with special photography assignments.

I'm looking forward to doing less. After all, I was supposed to retire in June of 2020. In my retirement, I realized that I thoroughly do hate deadlines. It is time to pass the torch. I will still be around, but as time goes on, expect to see more of Andy and less of me.

I met Andy on Thursday, and I think he will be a good fit. He loves athletics, is enthusiastic, and unlike me, he actually has training as a writer. Andy has a master's degree in linguistics, so don't expect to see some of the grammatical errors that occur repeatedly in my writing.

And, if you haven't noticed those grammatical errors, thank the people who have long-sufferingly corrected my errors. They are the unsung heroes that make my writing look good and make the newspaper readable. I want to publicly thank everyone who has ever edited anything I have written, and thanks to all the kind words that I have heard from readers.

I think it's great that life has returned to the place where the corporation can begin rehiring sports reporters and editors. I love athletics, so I am probably never going completely away, but it is time for the new guard to step in.

Stay well, stay safe, and may the games begin.

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