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.