Will NHS football return to the gridiron?
It's been nearly a year since a high school sporting event was staged in the state of Oregon. For the Newberg High School football team, late fall 2019 was the last time they laced up their cleats, put on their pads and helmets, and competed on a Friday night.
The Tigers have been practicing and working out intermittently in the offseason with safety precautions in place, waiting for their official practices to finally start. The OSAA set Monday, Feb. 8, as the first day football teams could practice for a rescheduled, shortened season, and Newberg took the field for equipment-free workouts on Monday.
"We have a planned week of practice without any shoulder pads, helmet, equipment or anything like that," NHS coach Kevin Hastin said on Feb. 3, prior to the team's first practice. "It's still a no-contact practice and we are hoping the governor changes the restrictions on contact sports sometime next week. The OSAA is in contact with the Oregon Health Authority and we're all just waiting on what the governor says next week."
Practices include up to 50 participants, spaced out and masked up, with no contact allowed and a focus on conditioning and fundamentals. Until they get the go-ahead from the governor, the typical sound of pads crunching won't be echoing from Loran Douglas Field.
Coaches show up to practice an hour early to get things set up for safety. Footballs and any other equipment used is sanitized fully and players have to check in before every practice and do contact tracing. So far, Hastin said, there hasn't been a single case of COVID-19 related to team activities since the Tigers started back up in the summer.
"It's been nothing short of a challenge as a coach," Hastin said with an exasperated chuckle. "Setting up practice takes us an hour to make sure everything is COVID-proofed and safe for the kids to get out there. We are in constant communication with families to make sure they're aware of what's going on, especially because the guidelines have changed a lot over the past few months. We're just taking it one day at a time and focusing on the positive."
A good portion of the Tigers' offseason was spent in small groups in the weight room, where athletes wore masks and kept a safe distance from each other while pumping iron as they normally would in the lead-up to a new season. Out on the field, it's been almost exclusively conditioning, with not much in the way of real football due to contact sports restrictions mandated by the state.
Whether the planned six-game season happens at all is up to Gov. Kate Brown as she weighs a decision on contact sports going forward.
"It's tough to say what's going to happen next," Hastin said. "There's some days where I'm optimistic, think we're in great shape, and that it's going to happen. And there's other times where we don't hear information for a while and that can be concerning. Overall, I think it's looking better as far as the COVID numbers in Yamhill County and I feel pretty strong that we're going to have a season and it'll start on time."
Newberg is scheduled to play against all its league opponents, except for Century, and has a game scheduled against Mountainside as well. After that — barring any COVID issues disrupting the season — they will play a postseason "bowl game" as well against a yet-to-be-determined opponent.
But none of that can happen unless they and every other sports team in the state get the green light from Salem. Brown's announcement is expected at some point during the OSAA's first scheduled week of practices.
If high school sports aren't in the cards for the foreseeable future in Oregon, those practices will likely come to an abrupt end, with no opportunity for seniors at NHS or elsewhere to play one final season in their respective sports.
"Our team is looking great and ready to play," Hastin said. "Kids are working hard in their workouts and we have an experienced group coming back that is chomping at the bit to play some football. My senior class is a great one and I've seen them work extremely hard since their freshman year. They were my first freshman class. It would be just devastating if they did not get a season."
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