“Ready, set, hike!” the quarterback barks. The receiver jumps off the line in a dead sprint, cuts a tight route and looks back for the ball. The QB winds up, throws and delivers a perfect spiral — into the waiting net, some 20 feet away.
The receiver, nevertheless, mimes the catch, locks the “ball” and prepares for the tackle — which, of course, is not coming, and may not be coming until the next calendar year.
This is what football looks like in a phase 1 county, where restrictions imposed by the Oregon School Activities Association and state officials prohibit student-athletes from sharing equipment — including balls.
The effect is almost comical, but no one’s laughing. Head coach Jimmy Joyce says everyone — coaches, the players and district staff — are taking the restrictions seriously.
To them, it’s worth it, to be able to get back on the field, see their teammates and be together — in a manner of speaking.
“In my wildest dreams, I never thought about having a football practice where no one can touch a football,” said coach Joyce. “So, yeah, it’s been a little different. But it’s for a good cause: We’re trying to be hyper-safe. We want to make sure we’re following the right protocols and doing the right things.”
In a weird way, the situation falls well within the wheelhouse of many coaches, Joyce said, who do what they do because they relish the challenge of out-strategizing a clever opponent — the “opponent,” in this case, being an invisible virus and the public health crisis it has created.
“A lot of coaches love problem-solving,” he said. “This has been a really big problem-solving situation. And luckily, we’ve had a long time to try and figure this out.”
Ben Winegar, Canby’s athletic director, just laughs when he recalls first seeing the OSAA’s phase 1 guidelines and asking himself how a team can practice soccer when the kids aren’t allowed to kick the ball back and forth.
“For baseball, as well, what’s the first thing you do? You go out and you start playing catch,” Winegar said. “Well, playing catch is not allowed in phase 1. You say it, and you’re like, ‘How can this be possible?’ The challenges, I would say, are astronomical, and it’s important for kids and coaches to understand: This is not business as usual.”
Ironically, the work-around to the “no-shared-ball” problem has been a lot more balls. The quarterbacks have been issued three each — which they retrieve themselves after each throw. Baseball players have been working with six apiece — and practicing batting off of a tee.
“We want people to understand that we are following some extreme guidelines that they’ve never seen before,” Winegar said. “Because our job is really to keep our students and our community safe. We don’t want an outbreak to happen because we opened up our facilities.”
While some Clackamas County districts, including West Linn-Wilsonville and Molalla, have opted to leave their athletic facilities closed rather than attempt to navigate the phase 1 minefield, Coach Joyce said he feels it’s vitally important to provide this outlet for student-athletes.
“I think, for our kids’ well-beings, it’s good just to be out here, doing something,” he said. “It was really a no-brainer for me, because I feel like it’s part of taking care of the social and emotional needs of students. As a teacher, that’s something that’s huge for me.”
“Almost any parent of an athlete knows, it’s almost part of your identity,” he said. “When you lose that, it hurts, not just physically but mentally, because it’s who you are. It’s the clothing you wear. It’s the people you hang out with. All of that has to do with athletics.”
Because of the restrictions, Winegar admits, many of the drills that student-athletes have been doing this week could be re-created at home, with coaches sending assignments through email and checking in virtually. But it’s just not the same.
“It is so much more impactful when your coach is talking to you — from a far distance away — and you get that immediate feedback,” he said. “It just makes a huge difference. And from a coach’s perspective, it makes it all worth it. You know, people don’t usually get into coaching to coach over a screen.”
It’s something Joyce has seen firsthand.
“They’re so excited to be out here,” he said. “You know, we have almost 65 kids out here. They’re in groups of no more than 20 at a time and they can never intermingle, per the guidelines — but they’re together. And that means so much to them.
“It’s funny, but six feet seems to be a lot closer than it ever was.”
The question on many people’s minds, of course, is how actual games might be possible under such severe restrictions. With the start of the fall season less than two months away, it’s not looking great.
This week, the Division I Ivy League ruled out playing all sports this fall, while the governor of New Mexico announced that high school contact sports — including football and soccer — would be pushed out to spring.
Joyce says he and the other coaches have been frank about the challenges that lie ahead.
“We talk about that as a team all the time, that, you know, we don’t control what happens,” he said. “We’re still waiting to see exactly what school’s going to look like in the fall. We’re still waiting to see what football’s going to look like in the fall. We have no choice but to wait, and wait patiently.
“But when they tell me, ‘Hey — you’ve got practice tomorrow,’ we’ll be ready to go.”