Homer fall sports are forging ahead with their respective seasons, even though there is no clear picture of what those seasons will look like just yet.
With students heading back to school both virtually and in person on Monday, fall sports programs have been gearing up as well, even with COVID-19 making them more difficult. The Alaska School Activities Association laid out protocols for sporting events and practices that all ASAA affiliated teams must follow for the safety of student athletes. On top of that, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has its own set of COVID-19 mitigation protocols for sports.
The school district has a system for monitoring community spread of COVID-19, put together by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. When community spread is low, sports can continue with a few mitigation efforts like distancing, athlete health screenings and equipment sanitation. When community spread grows, more mitigation is required and sports can be halted.
On Tuesday, the central peninsula rose into the “red” high-risk level in the system used by the school district to decide what mitigation factors to use in schools, and when to close schools to in-person instruction. The central peninsula has had 63 new COVID-19 cases in the last 14 days. Based on the areas population, it moves to high risk when there are 52 or more new cases over 14 days.
Being in the high-risk region, schools on the central peninsula will now be 100% remote learning on Monday when school starts, and all sporting events for Nikiski, Kenai and Soldotna schools are canceled.
This throws a wrench into the schedules for Homer sports teams, even though the southern peninsula is still in the low-risk level, with only eight new COVID-19 cases over the last 14 days. While Homer athletes can still play and compete, the central peninsula being at high risk eliminates most local competition.
Homer football, volleyball and cross country teams had been scheduled to compete against teams from Kenai, Soldotna and Nikiski this weekend. Those games and events have been canceled or altered.
The eastern peninsula, or Seward, is sitting at the medium-risk level, and schools there can still play sports.
With the ever-changing landscape of COVID-19 in Alaska communities, this is the year of flexibility for local sports teams. Three head coaches spoke with the Homer News about how their teams and seasons are shaping up so far.
Stephanie Carroll, head coach of Homer’s varsity volleyball team, is fresh off a state championship title from last year. However, there’s a chance this year’s players won’t be able to return to defend that title. With Anchorage schools going completely remote this year, there’s doubt over whether there will be a state tournament held there for fall sports.
Carroll has seven returning varsity players who were part of the team that went to the state championship last year — three of them have been to a state tournament twice.
“Replacing those four seniors is not going to be easy by any means,” she said of the four players who graduated this past spring.
But the younger girls are looking strong, too, Carroll said.
When it came to getting the season started, Carroll said it was challenging at first to navigate all the guidelines around COVID-19 mitigation — things like keeping the athletes grouped into smaller pods and sanitation. Separation was harder before the team hosted tryouts, and is a little easier now, Carroll said.
“They went, you know, as well as can be expected,” she said of those early practices.
Now that the southern peninsula is in the low-risk category, Carroll said the mitigation plans she is required to file for each event, practice and meeting are a little less strict.
There have been no final decisions made on games and the season schedule going forward. One set of games against Sitka have definitely been canceled, Carroll said, but everything else is tentative and dependent on what risk level other schools are in. There may not be as much competition against teams from Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley this year, but local games between peninsula teams is more likely.
Carroll said there’s a high enough level of competition among the other volleyball teams on the peninsula to keep her players learning and growing.
“I do feel like our conference will be very strong again this year, and so there will definitely bee opportunities for us to develop our players further,” she said.
The team would certainly miss the chances to get playing time against teams from larger schools, Carroll said, if larger tournaments don’t happen this year.
“They’re so much fun, and they (the players) get so much experience from different teams,” she said. “… If they can’t have that, it will be one thing that will be a little bit of a disappointment.”
Spectators will also be handled differently this year for volleyball games. There were to be no spectators at the jamboree originally scheduled for this weekend — the event uses both courts, leaving no room for the bleachers. However, Carroll said she expects some level of spectators to be allowed going forward. Games will also be streamed for people to watch at home on the school’s YouTube channel.
There is something to be said for maintaining a live group of spectators at events, according to Carroll.
“It helps the girls to have the crowd an have that crowd noise,” she said.
Carroll said that if the volleyball season is given a state tournament, the Lady Mariners will be there to defend their title. If not, they’re going to go as far as they can in the season they’re given.
“As long as we get to play in some sort of fashion, we’ll take what we can get this year,” she said.
Homer’s football team has been navigating the required activity mitigation plans since this summer when head coach Justin Zank started conditioning practices. For him, implementing the mitigation strategies is habit at this point in the season.
Especially now that the southern peninsula is at low risk, Zank said the practices feel pretty normal.
“Practice hasn’t been that bad,” he said. “We’ve been doing it since we got out of red (high risk) this summer, with summer conditioning. So we adapted to that, and you know, as it goes green, then we’re allowed contact.”
When the season first started, Zank said pulling a team together wasn’t easy at first. Some players came out for the team right away and were committed to play, while others took some coaxing. Zank said the prolonged social distancing happening since the onset of the pandemic had gotten some students used to being indoors or not spending as much time with other people.
Once the team was pulled together and the athletes got outside practicing, Zank said things fell more into place.
“It feels normal,” he said. “You know, we’re out, we’re playing football, we got to do scrimmages … last weekend. And it was just a good time. And it feels normal, and I think that that’s good for the guys to get some sense of normalcy.”
With teams from other parts of the state likely keeping to their own regions or school districts, a successful season for Zank means continuing to play.
“Obviously we want to win games, but I guess the ultimate goal, at least right now, is we’re still instilling the culture of our team,” he said. “And that’s the ‘be better’ culture that we’re building. So a successful season this year would be to see these young men make themselves a better football player, make themselves a better young man.”
Being able to practice throughout the whole season, stay together as a unit, build that culture and finish out the season would contribute to a successful football season this year, Zank said.
It would be unfortunate if the team didn’t get a chance at playoff season or chance to make it to a state championship.
“But that’s not anything that we can control right now,” he said. “… So we’re focusing on what we can control, and what we can control is what we do here on a day to day basis and making ourselves better.”
Zank said he’s worried there could be a lack of spectators coming out to home football games this season. He doesn’t yet know what spectators at games will look like, but hopes members of the community will still see value in being outside, supporting their local team.
Now that the season’s started, Zank said he knows several of his players are benefiting from playing a sport after a prolonged period of more time spent indoors or distanced from others.
“I know for these guys, it’s great for them to just get out and be physically active, be around their peers again and socialize,” he said. “And yeah, just be outside getting fresh air. I know it’s good for their physical well being — it’s good for their mental health as well.”
Bob Ostrom, who heads up the high school’s cross-country running team, is no stranger to wide open spaces and distance when it comes to the sport. His group of runners gathered in the upper field behind the school on Tuesday for stretches and warm ups before practice.
Ostrom said that, in a way, the requirement of a mitigation plan for each and every cross country practice has actually been helpful as a way to keep the team organized and on track in terms of what they’ll be doing each day.
“We’ve just tried to stay separated and keep everybody apart,” Ostorm said.
That’s not always easy with young people who miss spending time with each other.
“Just a lot of reminders, because they like to hang out with their friends,” Ostrom. “A lot of them were pretty cooped up all summer, so those first few practices, it was really fun to get everybody together and see friends again.”
Ostrom said he has a lot of new athletes this year, and more showing up to practice every week. The girls team has especially strong numbers, he said.
As far as the season goes, Ostrom thinks it can still be a good one and that the team should be able to get some meets in, at least locally.
“We just have backup plans for everything,” he said.
A backup plan to go compete in Seward was already in place for this weekend in the case that the invitational at the Tsalteshi Trails in Soldotna got canceled, which it did when the central peninsula moved into high risk.
“Even if there’s no meets, we have a few plans to go do some fun stuff together as a team,” Ostrom said.
The goals for this season are to keep the team members learning, growing and active. Ostrom said fewer meets can be replaced by drills and skill building.
“We may not get to run in races much, but we can become better athletes,” he said.
The runners will miss having the chance to compete against athletes from big schools in Anchorage and the Mat-Su in larger tournaments, Ostrom said.
“Especially the mood and atmosphere at those meets is really different,” he said. “To see the big teams, and just the music and the crowd and everything — the whole atmosphere is definitely different. So we’ll miss that this year, and just try to find some ways to replace that and show the kids what cross country is like and what it could be.”