After nearly a year, sports return at Sonoma County schools

Less than a month ago, when a small number of high school sports were granted permission to resume official practices in Sonoma County, first-year Windsor High School cross-country coach Matthew Henry sent out an alert to his squad: Practice starts at 3 p.m., see you there.

A runner, one of just two freshmen on the Jags’ girls’ squad, texted back asking where the team was meeting. Henry responded they’d meet at the track.

Her reply: Where’s that?

“Here we are in February in freshman year and she’s never been to the high school,” he said.

It has been nearly a year since school campuses across Sonoma County were shut in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic. The vast majority of freshman in high school have never set foot on their campuses and seniors have lived with a lingering fear that they may not return by graduation day.

But a small light appeared at the end of what has proven to be a very dark, very long tunnel in recent weeks: The official return of a small handful of prep sports with the promise of still more on the horizon.

Cross-country, girls golf and boys tennis were all given the go-ahead to start official practices locally Feb. 1. Scrimmages have started in some cases, and competitions are on tap to begin the first week in March.

“Honestly, I was so happy when I heard that we were going to have something at least,” said Emilie Cates, a senior at Santa Rosa High and captain of the cross-country team.

In these months of distance learning and shelter-in-place, Cates has run to stay fit and cross-trained on her mountain bike, but she hasn’t been able to do those things in a team setting. That experience is just one among a slew of losses this year that she thought she might never have a shot at experiencing in her final year of high school.

“I can run on my own any day I want, but I can’t see those people any time I want,” she said. “It’s mostly just about our team and our people.”

“Sports helps brings that routine back,” she said. “It feels really great to be back and seeing everyone.”

Coaches and administrators feel it, too. When longtime Analy High School athletic director Joe Ellwood saw about five cross-country runners lined up to work out on their Sebastopol campus on that first day of practice, he called it “heartwarming.”

“Just to have kids on our campus, actually participating in something, nearly a year later, that was really cool,” he said.

‘We want to get our kids out there’

Working with compressed timelines and, for many sports, playing outside of their normal season, area high schools are first offering what are considered low-risk sports: Cross-country, boys tennis and girls golf. Baseball, softball, swim, and track and field teams are lined up for a spring competition schedule, soccer is slated to be played largely in April, and, in a surprise move, the California Department of Public Health authorized the return of football — albeit with what local officials say are maddeningly vague guidelines.

In a marathon meeting among North Bay League athletic directors Tuesday, officials hashed out tentative football schedules that are contingent upon a number of crucial factors, including district officials giving the go-ahead and the establishment of a state-mandated coronavirus testing program for players — many of whom have not yet completed medical clearance paperwork or completed concussion protocols.

And still to be hashed out are rules related to spectators.

“Testing and spectators, those are probably going to be the big issues,” North Bay League Commissioner Jan Smith Billing said.

So, too, are medical clearances for hundreds of athletes who likely thought the 2020-21 school year was a wash. School officials on Tuesday openly worried that even with the state allowing contact practices to begin Friday, most local programs will not be ready.

“We want to get our kids out there. We want them to play and be able to engage with their fellow athletes and for the families to have this opportunity to see their kids, even though I don’t know how much that is going to be possible,” Elizabeth Evans, district director for physical education and athletics for Santa Rosa City Schools, said on Monday. “It feels a little frustrating that we are really trying hard to make these things happen and then when the pressure is on, it feels like it makes it a little more challenging. But we are going to figure it out.”

Principals of the 13 North Bay League schools are slated to meet Thursday to go over potential schedules and address other issues that have arisen as the state opens up larger swathes of competition. Among issues of concern raised by athletic directors Tuesday was the emergence of club football teams that could put some programs at a steep — and some say, dangerous — disadvantage in a sport like football.

‘This is a win’

But for many, the headaches that have accompanied the seemingly sudden return of sports is a price they are willing to pay to see kids on campus and to provide a venue for students to compete and represent their schools.

“It’s good to see kids back on campus doing something productive,” said Dean Haskins, athletic director at Montgomery High School and the lead AD for Santa Rosa City Schools. “As an educator, what I really miss the most is the energy they bring to a high school campus. Seeing them in the afternoon, it’s been great. It’s been a real joy.”

In the NBL, in which teams are divided into two competitive tiers, there will be no champions crowned, no North Coast Section title chases and no opportunity to advance to the CIF Championship in any sport. There will be dramatically shortened schedules.

For Windsor High junior Dustin Smith, none of that matters much. Smith is a top returner for the Jags’ cross-country team, but he’s not too put out that he can’t run on his home course at Foothill Regional Park and instead has to race on a modified course around the high school campus.

At least he gets to run.

“It feels great to actually have social interaction. That is why I run. It’s not for the competition, it’s for fun with the team,” he said. “In my book this is a win. We are still running. We are still running together. What else could you ask for, right?”

Despite the laundry list of changes — mask wearing, limited spectators, no postgame handshakes — getting student-athletes out of the house and back with classmates is worth the toil, Smith Billing said.

“Too many kids are stuck at home,” she said.

“I hope that as many kids as possible participate, that coaches recognize that ’I don’t have to play all my starters all the time. I have 15 kids on the team, by golly, they are all going to get out there and play,’” she said.

Coaches in sports like swimming are considering using students as officials and timers to limit the number of people on the pool deck, and for the largest programs, having virtual meets because rosters may be too deep to safely compete head-to-head.

“It’s exciting to see what people are doing,” Smith Billing said. “It’s get out there and get healthy and have fun.”

’We’ll make it work’

Among the first sports out of the gate, cross-country coaches are reporting significantly smaller rosters — in some cases off 25 to 40% from the 2019 fall season. But some coaches say they are getting kids to show up who might never have come out in the past.

The Analy High boys’ tennis team has as big a roster as coach Rick Passero has had in recent years. He has a couple of guys who have never played competitively but wanted to sign on with a squad that has veteran talent.

“They’re enthusiastic and happy to be out there doing any dang thing,” he said.

Students who before COVID-19 were able to dabble and take part in multiple sports might find that trickier as three seasons are essentially compressed into one. But coaches and school officials have promised flexibility to allow students the widest breadth of options available.

Another knot to untie? Finding space on campus. Whereas months once separated football and track or soccer and baseball, now those squads have the potential to overlap. That means coaches and administrators will have to find a way to share limited space for more than one team needing room to roam.

“The biggest challenges for the athletic directors now is facilities,” Analy’s Ellwood said. “There is a reason we don’t play all the sports at the same time of year. But we’ll make it work.”

For two-sport athlete Nick Kraemer, the potential of losing not one outlet but two in his final year of high school was tough. Couple that with the isolation of online learning and his senior year at Analy was shaping up to be a disappointment.

"Online learning is really hard,“ he said. ”You don’t get to talk to anyone, you are just sitting there listening to the teacher talk for 30 minutes.“

But getting to suit up as the Tigers’ No. 1 singles player, and potentially get a final season on the football squad, has been a bright spot.

“It felt really nice to get back out there and get some normalcy back,” he said of the Tigers’ first two tennis scrimmages last week. “It’s awesome. It feels so good to get back on the court and competing with people.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

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