Alek Russell, Blake Niemann, Shane Stueve in football practice
Junior Alek Russell runs a passing route with junior Blake Niemann as a defensive back while assistant coach Shane Stueve watches during a no-contact Philomath High drill on Tuesday afternoon at Clemens Field. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Based on current restrictions handed down by the governor’s office, Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon School Activities Association, soccer and cross-country are the only two sports that appear to be a sure bet to enter competition in March.

As luck would have it, soccer and cross-country are also the two sports that have the most-challenging situations when it comes to home facilities. The varsity soccer field is a soggy mess with overgrown grass as one might expect this time of year and the cross-country course is unusable with standing water and fallen trees getting in the way.

“The fields are what they are and there’s not a lot we can do about it,” Matta said. “We’ll maintain them as well as we can. … This is the time of year when you can’t even get a mower on it.”

A wet weather forecast in the coming days won’t do much to help the situation.

“If it wasn’t a wet winter, we might be OK but it’s been fairly wet so far,” Matta said.

Cross-country may have an even more difficult challenge with a course that appears to have been negatively impacted by a nearby housing development and the city’s recent water/sewer line project. Drainage is a major concern.

“I didn’t realize, and I guess I never really looked, there’s a new house right up next to the fence,” Matta said. “Obviously, water’s not going to drain east, so where’s it going to go? It’s going to come onto the cross-country course and into Downing Forest.”

The school’s maintenance department this week started to clear downed trees and other debris.

“If it’s usable this year, I don’t know,” Matta said. “As they get the trees cleared out, are there adjustments you can make to it that moves the path a little ways away from those areas that are really wet? And then can we figure out what needs to happen when it dries up to get drainage in there.”

Soccer and cross-country can have informal workouts now with official practices beginning Feb. 22. It appears most likely that fans will not be allowed at competitions based on restrictions on gatherings. And a cross-country meet may feature only one, maybe two teams running at a time. Staggered starts could be a possibility.

Jake Williams in football practice
Junior Jake Williams runs the ball down the right sideline after receiving a kick during a football drill. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Elsewhere, the football team opened its official practices on Monday with Matta and his assistants running them through typical Week 1 drills. Contact between players is not allowed and there’s no protective equipment.

“The receivers are running routes and the backs are working on handoffs and the linemen are working on footwork,” said Matta, who estimated participation at about 25. “It’s ‘hey, this is where you’re going to go when you get pads on.’”

Of all of the athletic surfaces at PHS, Clemens Field appears to be in the best shape. However, the football practice fields located behind the grandstands are too wet.

“Where we traditionally practice is probably one of the lowest pieces of ground out there so we’ll practice on the game field and just be conscious of moving drills and not staying in the same spots,” Matta said, although he added that wet weather in the forecast could change things on that surface.

The gridiron could be considered to be a playing option for soccer, although the field has a crown and dips that could create interesting situations. The smaller pitch could also limit the effectiveness of a team like the Philomath girls, which beat down opponents with a style of play that utilizes the full width of the field.

“I think with the crown, I’m not sure you could,” Matta said about playing soccer on Clemens Field. “But certainly, if that’s the only place to play, maybe it is and you just deal with that.”

The most logical place to play might be on the new junior varsity soccer field, which last year received a new layer of dirt while the tennis courts went in. Matta said it’s not perfect, but it’s the least soggy playing surface.

Philomath does have a tougher situation than some other schools in the conference.

“Schools with turf fields, they’ve got a little bit of a leg up,” PHS Principal Mike Bussard said. “There’s no doubt about it, they can still get on their fields. They can potentially rotate football and soccer practices under the lights and make that happen. That’s not a reality for us.”

Then you have a school like Sisters with athletic fields under snow.

The condition of athletic fields is only the beginning of concerns that school officials have to consider.

“To add another twist … the word is there are not going to be enough officials, so they’re talking about stacking soccer matches,” Bussard said. “So basically, get your varsity game in and do what you can and get as much of a JV as you can.”

A regular soccer game may not be possible if it gets too dark. Daylight disappears this time of year in the 5:40 to 6:10 p.m. range and that forces decisions to be made about start times, which could interfere with distance or hybrid learning — especially for competitions on the road.

Logistics with transporting students to road games is another part of the picture. As of now, Matta said buses are limited to 12 students.

“That’s problematic in itself and we’ll work through that as we get closer,” Matta said.

Bussard compares the whole situation with athletics to an Abbott and Costello routine.

“Just going through the parameters for volleyball or football. … You want to get kids excited but you’re saying ‘come out for football but you can’t touch either other,’” Bussard said.

Volleyball continues to be in a tough situation with severe limitations on the number of people allowed inside gymnasiums. Word came down Tuesday that Benton County will remain in the “extreme risk” category for another two weeks until at least Feb. 25.

With such limitations, it’s not possible to play indoors. The OSAA suggested that perhaps volleyball could be moved to late spring but officials don’t see that as a realistic option for small schools like Philomath.

Matta said that if 11-man, full-contact football is still prohibited when the season arrives, the Warriors will compete in 7-on-7 “passing league” games.

“I think whatever we can provide them with what we’re allowed while following the protocols, I want our kids to have as many opportunities as they can,” Matta said.

One setback is that 7-on-7 football leaves out linemen. There are virtual linemen competitions but Matta said it’s just not the same.

“I told our guys yesterday (Monday), if you’re a skill guy and we only can only play 7-on-7, you’re still going to develop and your skills are going to improve,” Matta said. “If you’re a lineman, we’ll have opportunities for you. But it won’t be the same as putting the pads on and getting out there to go to work.”

As far as athletics starting up as a whole, there are some in the community that don’t understand how that can happen while students can’t return to classrooms.

“It’s not lost on us, the optics, of beginning athletics at the same time we have not begun the process of a true hybrid model,” Bussard said. “However, providing those opportunities for kids anywhere we can, I just think is invaluable.”

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Ty May in football practice
Sophomore Ty May participates in a lineman drill during Tuesday’s football workout. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)