Kenneth Mace was putting the finishing touches on his preparations for the coming spring and summer training periods when disaster struck. Like every other high school coach in the state, all machinations for the 2020-21 athletic season were thrown out the window as the new reality of COVID-19 took hold of the state.
As the newly hired head coach of the Woodburn High School varsity football team, this hit doubly hard for Mace. An assistant coach with the Bulldogs the previous two seasons, Mace was planning on using the spring term to fill out his coaching tree, reach out to returning and new student-athletes, and put his stamp on the program heading into the fall. In a matter of weeks, his roadmap evaporated into thin air.
"All my calendars were set up and ready to go," Mace said. "We were setting up our first team meeting before spring break. We were going to announce to the kids — this is what spring is going to look like."
Rather than lament what he had lost, Mace opted to embrace the chaos of 2020. Football is a game of pandemonium, after all. Teams will do whatever they can to disrupt their opponents' carefully laid plans, and the programs that adapt best to that disruption are the ones most likely to succeed. Sports in the age of COVID-19 is no different for the Bulldogs.
"You've got two different mindsets," Mace said. "You can look at it from a negative mindset — all the blaming, complaining and defending you can do. Or you can turn around and look at it as an opportunity to improve."
Take recruiting for example. In a traditional season, fall sports begin before the start of the school year. If a studen-athlete wants to compete in September, they need to commit to the program in late spring and make themselves available for summer workouts, meetings with coaches and team bonding opportunities. Those who wait until the start of fall practice are often too far behind their peers to catch up and earn playing time.
But with the fall sports season pushed back to February under the OSAA's revised 2020-21 athletic schedule, Mace has the entire rest of the 2020 calendar to establish relationships with potential players and recruit student-athletes to the team who would otherwise be on the fence about suiting up in the black and blue.
"A lot of our kids are working right now," Mace said. "Trying to get them — asking them about how they feel about (football), it's really hard to get a hold of them. When we're back in school, the opportunity presents itself."
A former player at Eastern Oregon University, Mace coached six seasons as an assistant at La Grande High School before taking over as head coach of the Tigers for two years. In his 13 years on the sideline, Mace has experience coaching nearly every aspect of the game, which has taken him from McKay High School to Marsing, Idaho. He was head football and baseball coach for the Marsing Huskies before returning to the Willamette Valley to be closer to his family, leading to his coaching and teaching position in the Woodburn School District.
In his time with the Bulldogs, he's come to appreciate the synergy between various programs and coaches at Woodburn High School, a "Team Woodburn" philosophy throughout the high school. That becomes much more important heading into a unique school year where the OSAA will attempt to squeeze in three athletic seasons in the span of six months between January and June next year.
"We really have a great opportunity to put that into perspective this spring," Mace said. "How is every coaching staff supporting each other as we go through these compressed seasons? It's a challenge that we're all kind of looking forward to — having that positive mindset."
One potential obstacle, the overlapping of the end of the winter season and the beginning of football season, is a nonissue as far as Mace is concerned. He wants to see his student-athletes on the basketball court and on the wrestling mat. And if that means Mace has to plan around being without key athletes for the start of the football season, so be it.
"We want those guys to be competing for a state title in any event they do," Mace said. "If that comes as an opportunity to go play a basketball game over a football game because of how the timelines work out, we'll support that."
As Mace seeks to embrace the positives out of the chaos, playing football following the winter schedule has a new advantage — inheriting players who are coming off that high-pressure playing environement.
"What a great opportunity for those guys to be battle-tested early off the bat," Mace said.
The basketball team more than any other program knows the tenuousness of sports in the age of COVID, having the 2020 state playoffs abruptly canceled in March. Mace doesn't want to see one of his student-athletes miss an opportunity by skipping winter sports to focus on football, only for the season to be abuptly canceled.
"We don't know if spring sports are going to be there," Mace said. "We don't know if fall sports are going to be there. Take advantage of every opportunity."
Should that opportunity come this spring, Mace is eager to show what the Bulldogs can do under his leadership.
"This is an opportunity to see how tough we are and how resilient we are, and when things get back to safely on the field and do what we enjoy doing, I think it's going to be very special," Mace said.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.