Central Oregon schools have taken multiple approaches when it comes to OSAA season 1. Crook County, Culver, Redmond, Ridgeview and Sisters have embraced competition, while the Bend school district has chosen to not allow practice.
Madras High School has taken a different tact. They have left the possibility of competition open, but during the first part of season 1, the school chose not to compete with other schools.
When practice was first allowed in the summer, in football for sure, Madras saw much higher than normal participation.
"We were super thankful," Madras head football coach Kurt Taylor said of finally being allowed to practice. "It was a complete relief. You sit in your house so long trying to do distance learning, so it was really difficult and I can only imagine how difficult it was for the boys. So it was an absolute blessing when they gave us the go ahead to start our summer workouts. Attitudes were amazing and the participation rates were huge."
Then, as weeks went by and it became clear that sports weren't going to start in the usual time frame, some players stopped coming regularly to practice.
Consequently, Madras coaches have worked hard to find ways to motivate players to practice when they don't know if and when they were going to get to play.
"I think they kind of said, 'Hey, we aren't going to be back in school', so the mindset kind of got negative again and they said, 'Hey, why do I need to come to football practice if we aren't going to have a football season?'" Taylor noted.
Taylor decided to recognize players who made it to at least 20 summer practices with T-shirts that say Men of Summer on them.
"The biggest thing that we struggle with and the reason that we did what we did in the summer program is that we combat player motivation more than anything," Taylor said. "It is something that as a coaching staff we are constantly trying different avenues to increase player motivation, drive and self-discipline to come to summer workouts."
It may be some time before the coaches clearly know how well the plan worked, but based on what players at a recent practice said, the results appear to be positive.
"For me it means a lot," sophomore wide receiver Cael White said of receiving a T-shirt. "I like to push myself a lot and work out and I know that a couple of kids that didn't get the shirt, they talked down about it and all that kind of stuff, but I feel that it's a big award for me."
Taylor said that the coaching staff has always given awards, but that typically it is things like players earning points for coming to practice and the awards are somewhat private. This time players were presented their shirts in front of the team.
"This time was a little different," Taylor said. "Because it was, 'Hey, Seth Colton, here's your shirt, good job for getting that.' A third of the kids walked away with T-shirts and a third of the kids walked away to their cars and trucks in the parking lot with nothing. It was all to do with the amount of practices that the kids came to."
Practices have also been different this year.
When practice was first allowed, the players were divided into pods of 10 or less that did not have close contact with any other members of the team. Pods rotated from one conditioning or strength activity to another. As more players were allowed to be in a confined space, the pods partially disappeared. But players have continued to rotate from one station to another. All players are required to wear masks unless they are taking a short break to catch their breath and are distanced from other players. Other safety measures were also in place to ensure the health and safety of players.
"The logistics of a pod worked from a coaching standpoint, but it was very tedious," Taylor said. "We thought maybe a parent wouldn't want their kid to come because it was so early in the stage, but it was amazing and the protocols were perfect for what we were trying to do."
Still, with uncertainty about when games will resume, Taylor says that motivation is still a key.
"It's tough not knowing, but you have to stay positive," he said. "That's the hardest thing to do but you have to and that's something that we have to keep telling our kids. We have to stay positive. You have to prepare as if something is going to happen, because if you don't prepare and it happens, then you wasted your time and you didn't do what you needed to do to make yourself better."
Taylor added that the senior leadership has remained positive.
"It's pretty hard to practice and not know if you are going to play," said senior Seth Colton. "You don't know if you are going to have your senior season or not, but if you are looking at going to the next level it gives you extra practice to be able to get there."
Colton added that COVID has made things more difficult, noting that lifting weights has been especially difficult.
"We weren't allowed to go to gyms for a while, so coming back after we couldn't even touch a weight for a long time was hard," he said. "Coach Taylor had us maxing out to see how much we had lost because he was trying to figure out how to get us back up and get us stronger than we have been. It was a little bit of a setback, but I think that the players that were doing what Taylor was telling, they didn't get set back a whole lot."
Colton added that he things the T-shirts were a good thing because people were recognized equally regardless of how good they are on the field.
"No matter if you are good or not, the kids that are recognized are being recognized for putting in the effort," he said. "They are all about effort. I know that I didn't show up to the amount of practices that I wanted to, so I don't feel like I was doing my part, but I was there most of the time."
Senior linebacker Jeremiah Smith agrees with Colton.
"It's been good, but we need more players to show up," he said. "We have been doing a lot of fundamentals because a lot of kids haven't been doing much athletic wise. We are getting stronger and faster. We haven't been around a lot of people for a while, so just being able to practice, it's been good. The other kids just need to come out and get better."
White was also happy to just be able to practice after the time off.
"All the kids are doing a lot of stuff on their own time and getting a lot stronger," he said. "Coach T, he's a good motivator and a lot of people look up to him. I'd say to the kids that aren't at practice to come be a part of a team — and if coach T can't motivate them enough, then they have to figure themselves out and motivate themselves to be out here."
Colton also talked about being excited to be back on the practice field, and the sense of family that the team is developing.
"I missed it a lot and getting to come back out here and actually practicing is what a lot of us have been looking forward to," he said. "Taylor doesn't necessarily care about the state championships or the league titles or all that, he just wants us to all come back in four or five years, or even 30 years down the road, and want the players to say that he impacted their lives in a good way. I know that he wants the state championships and the league titles and all that, but his main goal is people."
Taylor said that the senior leadership has been good and mentioned both Smith and Colton as part of the core group of leaders.
"We are sure trying to develop leaders," he added. "We have a leadership council, but it has been really difficult this year to do those things because normally we would buy them pizza and do something at lunch time, but we've got some really good leaders on this team. We have a core group of kids that have been disciplined enough to make themselves better. When we ask them to do something, they do it, now if we could just mold that to a larger group it would be very beneficial."
Taylor added that the coaching staff is working hard to develop the sense of family that some of the players talked about.
"That's why we have our core values," he said. "That's what we live and do everything by. Family and desire, that's a big piece of it. I think that's part of the reason that we get so upset that some kids decide not to come and some do, because in my mind you should want to be with your brothers."
The good news for Madras players is that they might not have to wait much longer to be back on the field, at least in some capacity.
Central Oregon athletic directors are planning on playing 7-on-7 football games later this fall and Taylor said that as of right now, Madras is planning on participating. It's not tackle football, but it's a start.
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