Photo by Al Case
In March of 2020 everything changed. Businesses shut down, schools went online, and quarantine began. Like thousands of other organizations and businesses, the SOU Athletics Program shut their doors, per the orders of Governor Brown, and the direction of the SOU administration. For many student athletes, like Deklan Humble who participates in track and cross-country, this was a disheartening but necessary decision. “Our season was cancelled three days before our first track meet in Chico, so it was disappointing for sure. But it was the right thing to do,” Humble said.
Now, athletics at SOU have resumed, but have had to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic. Athletic Director, Matt Sayre, explained some of the changes the department has made to ensure that all student athletes, coaches, and staff stay safe and protect the larger SOU community, while still being able to practice. In order to participate, student athletes are required to follow strict protocol to keep themselves and those working with the team safe and healthy. Failure to do so can result in benching from practices and even expulsion from the program.
Student athletes must wear masks at all times. Before each practice, each student athlete must pass a temperature check and complete the daily COVID-19 questionnaire. All workouts and practices have been tailored to ensure that they are safe and socially distant. No contact is allowed during practices, meaning that sports like football, wrestling, and basketball have had to adapt their usual training programs. The Department is also employing surveillance testing, where 25% of the students involved in a given sport are randomly selected for COVID-19 testing. This ensures that the department can detect whether or not COVID-19 is spreading within any program that was not detected through other measures.
Gabby Erb, a member of the SOU dance team, said that she feels safe going to practice every week, thanks to the measures being taken by SOU Athletics. “We practice in small groups, so I’m not worried about getting sick because they’re keeping a really good eye on everything.” However, she did note that the decreased number of practices has had an impact on new members, who may not feel as connected to their teammates or confident with new routines. Isaac Fernandez, who has been a member of the track and cross-country teams for three years, shared Gabby’s concern. “The annual camping trip was cancelled this year, and usually that’s a great opportunity to get to know your teammates. A lot of the new guys aren’t living together in the dorms, and don’t have the chance to get to know each other at team meals or while driving to competitions on the bus. Those are some of the best ways to build that team bond, and we don’t have that right now, which is hard,” said Fernandez.
Despite the substantial changes that the program has undergone since last spring, the future of athletics at SOU looks bright. More students are participating in sports at SOU than there were last year, with about 457 students currently on a team roster, up from around 430 last spring. Sayre attributes this increase in participation to the hard work the coaches put into recruiting efforts over the summer. “It’s still really great that we get to practice, even if there aren’t any competitions scheduled,” Fernandez said. “We’re all friends on the team, so being able to see everyone in person, even with masks and social distance, really just makes your day better.” Humble shared a similar sentiment, saying “Even though we’re not traveling and competing we’re still getting to spend time together and make memories in a safe way. It helps maintain the team bond.”
In late October one student athlete and one coach tested positive for the coronavirus and were placed in self-isolation. No further spread in the program has been detected. Sayre said that he was happy with their response, but noted that there is still room for improvement. Because the positive test results came in on a Friday, when many staff are furloughed, it took longer than they would have liked to take action. If they had been diagnosed on any other weekday, the response would have been much faster. In light of that, Sayre and his team are working to address the issues that arise from staff furloughs. Sayre was optimistic speaking about the department’s response to the two cases, saying that ultimately having a diagnosis early on allows them to identify flaws with the process and fix them sooner rather than later down the line.
The question of when athletics at SOU will return to normal is a difficult one. There are a plethora of requirements placed on athletic associations and teams, all coming from different authorities. The five major authorities governing SOU’s return to play are the Governor’s office, Jackson County Public Health, the SOU Health and Wellness Center, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, and the Cascade Conference Administration. Sayre says he is in no way upset about the requirement these institutions have placed on university athletics programs. “We want to do what is best for the student athletes and the staff,” said Sayre. When the athletics program does begin to return to normal it will not happen all at once. Rather than immediately going from no games back to a regular schedule, it will be a gradual increase. “It will be more like turning up the brightness than flipping a light on,” Sayre explained. When allowed, the program plans to slowly dial in while maintaining safety protocols.
The Cascade Conference has petitioned to be able to hold a limited number of meets and competitions beginning in winter term, provided they abide by a strict set of guidelines. “I don’t know if we’re going to be competing in January. But I trust the coaches and staff to make the right call,” said Gabby Erb. For now, athletics at SOU will be limited to modified practices. Ultimately, the health and safety of players, staff, and fans will be paramount when talking about how to manage travel and crowds when they are able to begin competing again. “We plan to lead with a focus on our student athletes, campus, and community at the forefront of our minds,” Sayre said.