There was a distinct feeling of excitement this week for local high school athletes and coaches as the fall sports season got under way with the first day of practices Monday.
Gone were the masks, social distancing and other measures that were put in place last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead it was largely back to normal for prep athletes participating in football, soccer, volleyball and cross country.
“It feels good. We’re getting closer,” said Thurston athletic director Justin Starck, who also coaches the school’s football team. “We still have to do contact tracing and things like that, but for the most part things feel normal.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order mandates that masks be worn in all indoor settings to help battle the COVID-19 Delta variant, but it makes an exception for individuals who are “practicing or playing a competitive sport at any level.” That means outdoor sports are free to play and practice as they have in the past; indoor sports, such as volleyball, will be able to compete without masks but athletes will need to wear face coverings while sitting on the bench or not directly competing.
Starck noted that all high school athletes will be subject to the mask mandate while they are in locker rooms, weight rooms or other indoor facilities, or when they are traveling together by bus to away contests. Spectators will need to wear face coverings while indoors but not at outdoor contests, and there are currently no plans to restrict capacity at sporting events this fall, meaning there should once again be full stands cheering for local prep athletes.
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“The kids are excited for a regular season, to play a full season and have fans back this fall,” said Starck, whose team won back-to-back Class 5A state championships in 2018 and 2019. “I think we’re going to be OK. We’ve got some good kids out and we’ve got a really big senior class.”
North Eugene girls soccer coach Brandy Wormdahl has seen the excitement firsthand as her program drew one of its biggest turnouts ever. The Highlanders played an abbreviated season in the spring, but her players are hungry to play a full schedule this fall after advancing to the 5A state semifinals in 2019 and the quarterfinals the year before.
“I have one of the biggest groups I’ve ever had,” Wormdahl said. “I’m not sure if it’s because of COVID, but I have 35 girls out this year. It’s been awesome so far. It’s nice to feel a little bit normal.
“There are no restrictions and things are pretty much back to normal for now. But as you know, things can change week to week.”
Wormdahl said one of the most enjoyable parts of practice has been seeing the smiles on her players’ faces again.
“I’m excited and the kids are too,” she said. “It’s funny to see the kids’ faces again since last year they were all masked. I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s what you look like!’ I haven’t seen their faces in so long.”
Over at Willamette, boys soccer coach Jason Burke brings back a veteran group that went 9-0-1 during the abbreviated spring season.
So far, the team’s practices have gone smoothly and players are excited for what is shaping up to be a mostly normal campaign. The Wolverines went through maskless practices all week in anticipation of a successful fall season.
“We are a soccer powerhouse in the region,” Willamette athletic director Thomas Armstrong said. “Our boys were the only undefeated soccer team in 5A last spring and we are really excited about this season. Jason Burke is … a great guy and leader, very well known and respected in the area.”
Sheldon volleyball coach Martine Wodke has faced a few more challenges than her outdoor coaching peers, but she said numbers are still up in the program and enthusiasm is high among her athletes.
“We’ve had great turnout,” she said. “I’ve talked with some other high school coaches and everybody has a lot of players this year. We’ve got the highest numbers we’ve had in a while.”
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The Irish went 9-1 during the spring, but without playoffs or a state tournament the season lacked a sense of finality.
“We lost some wonderful seniors and I’m very sad that they didn’t get to compete at state,” Wodke said. “But our younger players have continued growing and I’m very excited about this season.”
Wodke said that 4J school district policy only allows athletes to remove their face coverings indoors if they are fully vaccinated, so the team’s practices still have a bit of a 2020 feel. That rule may evolve as the school year goes on, but for now the Irish are still masking up.
“My understanding of the rule is that they’re saying if you’re on the vaccinated list, that’s when you can remove your mask,” she said. “So we still have a lot of players wearing masks.”