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High school sports return to competition in Sonoma County

There were a series of unusual sounds at Maria Carrillo High School Tuesday: The thunk of tennis balls hitting rackets, the squawk of sneakers on pavement, an occasional whoop of excitement and every so often, polite claps. In the distance, there was the sound of football players counting off calisthenics.

On Wednesday, at Piner High School, the crack of a starter’s gun sounded and suddenly the air was filled with the voices of coaches exhorting runners to pick up their cadence or keep their eyes focused on the racer in front of them. Course monitors cheered runners or, when they couldn’t place the name, just called out the school name on the front of singlets.

The scenes appeared normal but were in fact radically different.

For months, high school campuses across Sonoma County have been eerily silent, shuttered for nearly a year in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. But in recent weeks student-athletes and their coaches have returned to school to practice boys tennis, girls golf and coed cross country. More sports are slated to begin in the weeks ahead.

This week, the 13 schools in the North Bay League began competitions in those three sports in earnest, signaling not only a return to the field of play for hundreds of students, but a return to something that is starting to look akin to normal.

Wednesday’s meet between host Piner and visiting Santa Rosa High — the first of the season — was almost a year to the day that any athlete in Sonoma County has been able to suit up in school colors and compete. That alone triggered emotions for veteran Santa Rosa High cross-country and track coach Carrie Joseph.

“It hit me. I’m out there looking at all these guys in their uniforms, trying to make the best of this year … and the emotions just got the best of me,” she said. “I just love seeing what this sport does for them and it’s such a weird year and I’m just so happy that they are able to do this.”

Sophomore Jayke Tanee agreed.

“It was super great that we get to run,” he said. “It’s a privilege.”

In the push to get as many sports on the docket as possible before the end of the school year, seasons are shortened and out of place from their normal spot on the calendar. In the NBL, there will be no league champions’ pennants, no all-league selections and no bids to make the North Coast Section tournament.

But there are not a lot of complaints. Mostly it’s gratitude from athletes thankful they get to compete, even if they are still not allowed to attend classes in person.

“It felt pretty great,” said Leonardo Vazquez, a sophomore on the Piner High cross country team. “We actually get to socialize with friends we had from last year. And putting on the uniform is representing our school.”

In the neighboring Vine Valley Athletic League — which includes Sonoma Valley, Petaluma, Casa Grande, Napa, Vintage American Canyon and Justin Siena high schools — tennis matches started last week, as did cross-country meets. Golf starts Monday and swimming is underway.

So hungry are some athletes to compete that they are trading in their primary sport for, in some cases, a discipline they have little to no experience with.

Windsor High basketball players Ben Geist and Jackson Earl normally team up on the hardwood. These days, with the prospects of a high school basketball season in doubt, the pair are now a doubles tandem on the Jags’ tennis team.

“We started playing tennis because it keeps us active, in shape, being able to hang out with friends,” Geist said.

“It gives us a reason to go outside, honestly,” Earl added.

Xerxes Whitney, the Jags’ tennis coach, has been the beneficiary of that need to get out, play with friends and compete — at anything.

“I’ve had more boys out than I have ever had,” he said.

But while the pandemic and ensuing shelter-in-place orders have spurred some athletes to jump at any chance they have to compete, it has caused others to drop sports.

Piner High cross-country coach Luis Rosales has more girls than normal lining up to run, including a couple of volleyball players sensing their season might not happen. But his boys’ team got hammered by unexpected departures. Seven runners he had penciled in on his roster have dropped. The pandemic has made showing up for practice or committing to a schedule exceedingly tough for some students and their families, he said.

One boy is struggling with distance learning, another is wrestling with anxiety and another got a part-time job.

“They probably all have seven different answers. I wish there was one simple answer, it’s seven different things,” he said. “(The pandemic) is magnifying whatever you were doing or not doing.”

But the kids who joined the team are excited to be doing just about anything, he said.

“From what I see, and I could be off base, they are just happy they are running,” he said “They are happy that they have a season, even if it’s a shorter season. They are just ’Hey, we are going to run.’ ”

For Joey Manfredi, tennis has been his first taste of a normal high school experience. The Maria Carrillo freshman has been doing distance learning for months, so joining the tennis team has been his only interaction with normal high school life.

“With online school it’s really hard to feel school pride. But now that we have the uniform on and we kind of all have team spirit, we can really feel like camaraderie between all of us,” he said. “It’s a really good environment for sure.”

Santa Rosa High boys’ tennis coach Dustin St. John said his focus this year is on fun and getting as many guys as he can hooked on the sport. He’s got some veterans, but also guys new to the sport. Since the season has been turned on its ear — no pennant race, no post season — St. John has changed his approach, at least temporarily.

“This season I’m just trying to keep it fun and do whatever they want to do. If they want to learn they can learn. If they want to play games, we play games,” he said. “There is really nothing riding on this. Coming in first is the same as coming in last. Really who wins is who has the most fun, that is kind of what I’m doing with this season.”

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

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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