Vance: The 'W's and 'L's of 2021 high school sports
As of Saturday, April 10, the most unusual fall sports season in the history of Oregon high school sports had come to an end.
The six-week season — forced upon high schools by statewide restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic — opened amid a cloud of uncertainty, but finished in triumph.
At least as much triumph as the state allowed.
Despite the truncated length of the "fall" season — fall season sports teams competed throughout the past six weeks rather than the normal 14-week season from September through early December — and in general, it was a big success.
Oregon's high school athletes — after seeing the winter 2019-20 season stopped at its very end, the 2020 spring season canceled in its entirety and the 2020 fall season delayed, then delayed again and shortened — were universally grateful for the opportunity to compete.
Most often, athletes said that they valued the opportunity to return to the team environment, sharing time together in practices, training sessions and games. They also reveled in the chance to compete, to test themselves against the best, and to see how much their offseason training efforts translated into success on the fields, courts and cross country courses.
Also noteworthy and valuable, the shortened fall season gave athletes the chance to compete in their annual rivalry matchups, including classics such as the Oregon City and West Linn football team's 100th Battle for the Bridge and the annual Lake Oswego-Lakeridge contests known as the Battle of the Lake.
To see these athletes — in the tiny window of opportunity afforded to each of them as varsity players — shine once more in their sport of choice, celebrate big plays and great performances, exult again in the presence of their best friends and teammates on the field of play has been nothing short of spectacular.
At the same time, we have to acknowledge that there have been losses — big ones — associated with the shortened seasons forced upon the Oregon School Activities Association and the state's high school athletes by Governor Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority.
First, the shortened seasons — in the fall season that just ended and in the six-week spring (April 12-May 23) and winter seasons (May 17-June 27) still to come — meant fewer practices and fewer competitions. That means fewer chances for athletes to play, to mesh with teammates, to improve, to make memories and to get noticed by colleges.
Second, fans got shortchanged, too. With drastically fewer chances to see Oregon's high school teams compete, and with spectator capacity limited by the state's COVID-19 restrictions, fans had far, far fewer chances to see Oregon's best high school athletes in action.
That means that many parents missed out on their children's games, meets and matches. So did many of their friends, classmates, grandparents and teachers. The excitement that big crowds bring to high school sports — and their relative absence over the past six weeks — has been another significant loss.
And third, the shortened seasons cut down — drastically in several cases — playoff competition. While some leagues chose to host traditional district cross country meets and some teams will advance to pseudo-state meets, most sports saw their playoff opportunities cut by as much as 80%.
In football, for example, teams normally compete through either four- or five-week playoff schedules. This year, teams got to use the sixth week of their season — known as the culminating week — to schedule one additional game. At the Class 6A level, six of the state's seven unbeaten teams lined up to play each other on Friday, April 9, with West Linn beating Newberg 33-7, Sunset knocking off Central Catholic 38-31 in overtime, and West Salem dropping Sprague 35-21.
But similarly unbeaten Mountain View was left out of the mix (the Cougars beat Bend 44-7 on Friday) and the state finished with four unbeaten 6A teams. Each of those teams can rightly make a claim to be Oregon's best, but none can rightly claim to be state champion. That's another big "L."
That scenario repeated itself in volleyball, boys soccer and girls soccer, too. It's great that these teams got to play, and Oregon's high school athletes and coaches made the most of what was offered to them.
But what was offered to them was just a shadow of what used to be, a poor, faded photocopy of what these teams and athletes deserve.
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