Central Oregon high school sports teams could be sticking close to home for competition if athletic departments follow state recommendations to create schedules against local and regional teams as a way to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The recommendations, which were made in August, would create unusual matchups. Football could see multiple games against the same opponents, and baseball, basketball and volleyball teams could see competition against smaller schools. How playoffs and championships would be handled is uncertain.
A more regional-focused schedule could cause quite the shakeup from what the 13 Central Oregon schools in seven different conferences played a year ago.
Athletic directors across the state are waiting for more guidance from the Oregon School Activities Association, the state’s high school sports governing body. The association meets Monday morning to discuss how to move forward with competitions, which are scheduled to start after Christmas, and keep people safe at the same time.
“Our stance is that we would like to go regional and stay close to home and develop schedules within our area if we need to get outside the box and play within our conference with the Salem schools we will venture down that road and see if those things are possible,” said Dave Williams, the athletic director of the Bend-La Pine School District. “But right now, it is just a guessing game.”
The association’s recommendation is based on guidelines set forth by the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education. If the decision is made to allow long-distance travel for competition, more buses would need to be used which could impact the school's athletic travel budget.
For the 2020-21 school year, the Bend-La Pine School District, Central Oregon’s largest school district, has an athletic transportation budget of $408,840 to cover the district’s four high schools. The cost has remained fairly steady dating back to the 2016-17 school year.
Bend, Mountain View and Summit high schools were traveling to Salem for more than half of their Mountain Valley Conference games. Redmond, Ridgeview and Crook County have Pendleton in their conference.
Only one of La Pine's conference opponents is within 100 miles (97 miles to Pleasant Hill); the closest Culver conference opponent is Colton which is over 120 miles away; and the Class 1A Mountain Valley League with Trinity Lutheran, Central Christian and Gilchrist travel all over Southern Oregon.
The larger sports teams — football and track and field for example — would need to add multiple busses to transport teams with the social distancing parameters, Williams said.
“If we take four or five buses for one (track and field) team, multiply that by three high schools, that is a big ask for our transportation department,” Williams said. “Even with football you go from one, maybe two buses to three.”
A more regional schedule would make sense financially without the possible anchor of long,expensive bus rides. On the other hand, schools will lose money if fans can't attend in person.
“No fans and or no competitions means no money,” said Bill Wittman, a vice principal, and athletic director at West Salem High School. “Reduced schedules mean less money. If we play more regionally, there’s a chance we could have more people in the stands, but again, we don’t know if fans will be allowed or not.”
Madras High School Athletic Director Evan Brown does not know whether or not the typical schedule is a possibility in the 2020-21 school year, but is hopeful to play in the Tri-Valley Conference schedule, which is primarily schools from the Willamette Valley.
Sisters High School Athletic Director Gary Thorson has a feeling that a normal conference schedule would mean the Outlaws have to travel an average of 107 miles to face the six other schools which make up the Oregon West Conference might not happen, at least in late December.
“That is obviously not up to me, but when you look at what is going on we appear headed that way at least for the winter sports if we have them,” Thorson said. “For the other seasons, we might have a chance for league schedules.”
He also said that they are ready to make the trips — which go as far as Woodburn and Newport — and take extra buses to adhere to social distancing.
Travel plans for the upcoming seasons could be determined by the plans for postseasons, especially for sports where playoff berths are determined by conference play, like basketball, softball and soccer.
Playing a more regional schedule where classifications are mixed together makes determining a post-season schedule tricky. They are traditionally determined by conference and league performance as well as the results against the same classifications.
“Our conference (Mountain Valley Conference) will probably lean toward as much regional type activity as we can handle,” Williams said. “We still want to honor what we have within our league, but the reality of that being in place this year is not too optimistic right now. It will really hinge on each season and which sport’s (postseason) look like.”
With so much still up in the air and questions unanswered, Williams and other athletic directors in the area are working together to formulate a way for the regional schools to compete with one another, while still planning for the chance that a more typical schedule is able to happen. Kids’ safety is at the forefront of the issue.
“We are trying to put things together where we can be closer to home,” Williams said, “and hopefully get into the (regular conference play) seasons that are coming up.”