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High school sports - some of them - are set to return March 1, but no one knows for sure.

PMG PHOTO: MILES VANCE - Lakeridge's Sam Hardie is one of thousands of senior athletes across Oregon who wonder if they'll get a chance to play in their final prep season in 2021.There's no question about it — there are more questions than answers regarding the potential return of high school sports across the state of Oregon this year.

Back on Jan. 14, Pamplin Media Group's sportswriters addressed the question of whether high school sports — on the shelf since March 13, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown — would play at all in the 2020-21 school year.

A week later, we asked the question on every parent's mind — if high school sports do come back, will it be safe for athletes to play?

This week, we follow up with the third part in our series on the rebirth of high school sports in Oregon — how important are they?

Athletes, parents speak

For athletes who have been denied the chance to compete for their high schools for almost a year — if Oregon sports return to competition March 1 as scheduled, it will mark 353 days since the last contests sanctioned by the Oregon School Activities Association — the return of competition is of utmost importance.

Devon Hammeke, a three-sport athlete who transferred from Grants Pass to Illinois Valley for his senior season, shared his thoughts on the Facebook group Let Them Play! - Oregonians for Athletes.

"As I spend my last few months as a senior and reflect on what my last two years have meant to me, I have no memories to look back at and admire. My junior year track season was taken a week before our first meet. My team and I spent countless hours training and running so many long miles so we could compete and within one week it was taken. In anticipation of having a cross country season, I trained in the summer, and instead got told to do high school in front of a computer and that there would be no sports until January. Think of how this must feel for all of us athletes & students. I've personally never thought I'd have to end high school in such a manner."

It's not just athletes who are begging for the end to Oregon's shutdown, either. Here's part of a response posted to the same Facebook group by Lakeridge parent Wendy Terris (her son Sebastian Terris is a football player and a member of Lakeridge's Class of 2023).

"This is becoming critical. Our kids are at risk of losing their chances for any season. … The science and studies show our student athletes have an extremely low risk of dying from COVID-19, but have very high chances of dying from gun violence, suicide, drug overdoses or car wrecks. Why are they being denied the chance to play? …

"The argument of them catching and spreading COVID is a moot point. Our kids have been practicing together since September in hopes of having a season. There hasn't been an outbreak of any kind. How would putting on shoulder pads and helmets somehow make them more likely to catch and spread COVID if they aren't infected?

"As far as spreading it to teachers and other classmates, may I remind you that the majority of schools aren't open for in-person learning, and haven't been since March, so how would they pass it to others?

"I shouldn't have to remind you that athletics are purely voluntary and if any parents aren't comfortable with their kids playing, they aren't being forced to, but don't allow these few to dictate for the rest of us.

"The class of 2021 and 2022 are being screwed out of chances for scholarships by not being allowed to compete when other states are."

PMG PHOTO: MILES VANCE - West Linn junior Asia Hardin and the Lions were one of Oregon's best teams in 2019, but wonder if they'll get a chance at even a shortened season in 2021.

The pluses of sports

In addition to ending the pain that athletes and their parents are undergoing, the restart of Oregon high school sports brings with it a myriad of other benefits, too.

"We believe that it's critically important for students to be engaged in high school sports and activities," said OSAA Executive Director Peter Weber. "High school sports are more than just games for kids. Besides the obvious physical benefits, students are yearning for that connection with their peers and coaches. This will benefit their mental health and well-being immeasurably.

"Studies show that students who are participating have less anxiety and depression and a higher quality of life. They are also more likely to graduate and be active as adults."

There are others — lots of them — who agree with Weber's assessment regarding the value of high school sports and activities.

"I think (the return of sports is) extremely important," said Hillsboro High School Athletic Director Steve Drake. "Like with the workouts we've been able to do, the purpose of the workouts and — hopefully — playing in the future is not to prepare for district or state championships, developing all-stars or prepping kids for college, it's strictly about mental health. Giving the kids some sense of normalcy, the ability to be around friends and to do so in a safe environment is why this is so important."

"For a lot of kids, it's those co-curricular activities that drive them to the (classroom)," said Woodburn School District Athletic Director Chad Waples. "There are a lot of kids who connect to the classroom because of their relationship with their coaches and the relationships they have with their teammates. The day-to-day level of going to practice and the responsibility they have of making the commitment to a team. That's no different than the kids in the drama room, theater, choir."

Right now, however, no one knows what lies ahead for Oregon high school sports. While 37 states across the country played fall sports mostly as normal (including football — classified as a "full-contact" sport in Oregon, with 33 crowning state champions and another four forced to cancel some championships due to spikes in COVID-19) and {obj:51828:39 already have kicked off} winter season sports (including another "full-contact" sport — wrestling), Oregon has thus far only hinted at what might lie ahead.

Based on guidance from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's office and the Oregon Health Authority, the state currently appears ready to allow the return of soccer and cross country competition beginning March 1, while other traditional fall season sports — football, volleyball and water polo — currently are prohibited, football because it's listed as a full-contact sport, volleyball and water polo (a club sport) because they're indoor sports.

Additional full-contact sports — as listed by the OHA — include rugby, wrestling, cheerleading, basketball, hockey, dance, water polo and men's lacrosse. Indoor activities, including volleyball and water polo, are only allowed in Oregon counties deemed lower, moderate, or high risk.

Looking forward

After fall sports, spring season sports are scheduled to begin April 12 and continue through May 23 (with practices starting one week earlier), while winter sports kick off on May 24 and continue through June 27 (with practices starting one week earlier). Right now, wrestling, basketball and indoor swimming are tied to county-by-county risk levels.

"The shift of wrestling and basketball to the end of the calendar provides the most runway for their prohibition to be lifted by the state," said a Dec. 7 news release from the OSAA. "The OSAA has been given no indication that a change will be made in this designation but remains hopeful that a change could occur prior to Season 4."

Phil Hawkins and Wade Evanson contributed to this story.

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