Oregon’s smoky summer prompted changes to high school sports

Redmond High football players practiced under a smoke-filled sky in 2017. Central Oregon high school sports teams are again dealing with poor air quality this year, in addition to navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several Central Oregon high school athletic directors finally had everything figured out — a plan for practices and even for some unofficial competitions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then wildfire smoke blanketed Central Oregon putting everything on hold, yet again.

“It’s completely frustrating, but it’s amazing how flexible and resilient everybody has become through all of this,” said Crook County High School athletic director Rob Bonner. “Everybody understands. We’re just kind of taking this as the next thing and moving through it. I’m very proud of everybody associated and how positive everybody is remaining.”

Crook County, along with Redmond, Ridgeview, Culver and Sisters high schools had plans for an optional six-week season of spring sports starting earlier this month, followed by six weeks of fall sports, then six weeks of winter sports. Official Oregon School Activities Association contests are scheduled to begin with winter sports in late December, but until then, school districts can devise their own plans.

Spring sports include baseball, softball, golf, tennis and track and field. Bonner said some of those Crook County teams have been able to practice indoors in small groups as air quality levels remained hazardous over the past several days.

“Softball was able to go into the gym and still be able to safely conduct some hitting drills and things like that,” Bonner said. “Baseball and tennis as well, but just shortened, modified practices. But at least they’re still able to continue through that. Track and field is rough. With the size of the team and limitations for being indoors, that’s hampered us.”

Bonner said that as soon as the air quality improves to 100 or below, or the “moderate” level on the air quality index, then teams can return to practicing outdoors. Air quality was expected to improve across Central Oregon starting Thursday and through the weekend.

“It always seems to ebb and flow, and come back,” Bonner said of the smoke.

“Looks like we might have some clean air by Friday,” said Ridgeview athletic director Sam Platt. “But I think it’s hard to predict. We have a monitor on our football stadium and it got down to 175 this week. It felt like you were breathing clean air. I never would have thought I would be grateful to see 175 on that.”

Crook County, Redmond, Ridgeview, Culver and Sisters have plans to compete against one another in spring sports over the next few weeks while following all recommended state guidelines for physical distancing and face coverings. Those contests have been delayed because of the smoke, and because of the OSAA mandate that teams need nine practices before they can compete against another team.

“That’s what we’re up against,” Platt said. “We’re already in such a limited amount of time trying to get a few competitions here and there. Now we’re having a hard time getting kids practices. From the athletic standpoint, we were on the cusp of providing opportunity, and then to have one more thing kind of thrown in … We anticipated it, though. Unfortunately it’s become our norm the last few years.”

While fall high school sports teams in Central Oregon have become accustomed to hazy skies and poor air quality most years from wildfires, it is unfortunate that spring sports are now dealing with it, noted Redmond High Athletic Director Doug Taylor. Last season, spring sports in Oregon had their entire seasons canceled due to the pandemic.

“It’s especially disheartening with it affecting spring sports,” Taylor said of the smoke. “ It’s no fun for anybody, but we’ll deal with it as we need to. We were fortunate enough to plan some competitions. Our coaches and kids were all looking forward to that. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen still, it just might be delayed a bit further.”

Taylor added that he is taking the situation “day by day,” and looking forward to improved air quality, possibly starting Thursday.

“We just want to give kids opportunities to get involved and start building those relationships,” Taylor said of practicing and competing.

While high school sports in Central Oregon continue to be delayed for one reason or another, Bonner was able to put the situation in perspective, noting the tragic losses that some suffered from the wildfires that swept over the Cascades and into Western Oregon last week.

“I have a hard time griping about our air quality,” Bonner said. “People affected by the fire and the firefighters, the air quality is the least of their worries.”

—Brian Rathbone, The Bulletin

Reporters: 541-383-0318, mmorical@bendbulletin.com; 541-383-0307, brathbone@bendbulletin.com

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