June 26, 2021 — It was a trying year for student athletics, but because of Athletic Directors (ADs) and coaches like Siuslaw’s Chris Johnson, Oregon schools more than muddled through. As a result of the tireless efforts of Johnson and his colleagues, kids were afforded the opportunity of playing every sport Siuslaw normally has available. In fact, this year saw two brand new teams added to the Vikings’ available list of activities: varsity boys’ soccer and the clay target shooting team.
However, no one knew, often up until the week before events were set to begin, whether or not the activities would actually be able to take place. And even then, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many cancelations and schedule changes throughout each season played.
“Up until the last minute, football was not going to happen, basketball was not going to happen, wrestling was not going to happen,” said Johnson, “and then they all happened. So, whatever we had to do collectively or individually to dot all the i's and cross all the t's was worth it because kids got to participate. That was always the end game.
“And that's the silver lining in all this; we had sports. For me, and I think for a lot of coaches, having sports back was the best [thing] we could ever have to fix our lives because we were all miserable. I think a lot of kids were miserable and having sports back at any level was a great bandage on the situation.”
Some people involved in planning the sports seasons had more resolve than others; the job of an AD is a complex and difficult one as it is. Add to that the chaos of a pandemic, and you’re faced with a position that is not for the faint of heart.
“Half the people in our league quit,” said Johnson. “Half of the ADs left, which is pretty normal. It's hard to explain — it is not an easy job. But what happened this year was we scheduled four different times. We scheduled everything, and then things got pushed back. Then we scheduled everything, and they shortened the seasons. Then we scheduled everything, and they shortened the seasons again, and [finally], we scheduled everything, and the seasons swapped in terms of what sport was happening first, second and third.”
To put in so much time and effort only to have it completely scrapped three times was difficult, but the difficulty did not stop when the athletics finally started.
“From there it was just constant changes every day,” said Johnson. “Changes with the metrics and measurements. How many people you can have, spectators or no spectators, and there was just a revolving door every day. It was exhausting. It's an exhausting job anyway, and it's hard to explain to people if they're not an AD. … It really was a perfect storm of discombobulation and constant change.”
Fortunately, those who did choose to stick it out and make athletics happen for their schools in the 4A Sky Em League went through the experience with like-minded and equally dedicated individuals.
“I did feel like the ADs in our league all kind of bonded,” said Johnson. “We talked every other day or so on Zoom calls, just to try to figure out how we were going to piece this together.”
Previously, the league’s Ads would meet once a month or so.
“We would drive somewhere, and we would all sit down. But we obviously couldn't sit down this year,” Johnson said. “We were meeting every three or four days [on Zoom] because we were just trying to figure out how to do this, how we were going to continue to make these things work out.”
The ADs persevered and saw to it that schools could participate however possible, which almost did not happen at a few points.
“Basketball season was the worst, which was weird because it was at the end,” said Johnson. “But when two schools came up with serious COVID issues and had to shut themselves down, we had to sit on a call and figure out how we were going to make the season work because those teams, Junction City and Cottage Grove, were two of the best teams in our league and in the state.
“In a normal situation if you can't play a contest, you forfeit, but we just didn't want that to happen. So, we revised the schedule on the fly.”
Another task the ADs were forced to take on this year was coordinating and producing the culminating events, which is typically handled by the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA).
“The OSAA did the best they could do,” Johnson said. “But I want to cringe when I hear that term ‘culminating week.’ At first the OSAA didn't say they were or were not going to host state championship events, but they finally decided schools could have the weeks back and do what they wanted with it.
“Some classifications decided, ‘Hey, we’re going to do what we’ve always done and just host these state championship events ourselves,’ and some did not do that,” said Johnson. “But 4A got together early on and just said, ‘Why would we not host a state championship?’”
It was lucky for those involved in the planning and coordination of the events that all were on the same page as far as their desire to give the kids every possible opportunity to have some semblance of normalcy in their school year.
“Greg Mulkey, who's the AD at Marshfield, and the group of ADs in 4A that led the way for culminating week activities, made it as much of a state championship situation as possible,” Johnson said. “Other than football, our state championships were pristine in terms of being as much like they normally would be as possible. That was cool, but it was just a fight every day.”
This year, for the first time in history, Johnson oversaw Siuslaw Track and Field hosting both the regional and state championships at Hans Petersen Memorial Field.
“What we did here in Florence with track and field was try as best as we could to host that event exactly like it would have been if it would have been the OSAA hosting it, except it wasn't at Hayward Field,” said Johnson. “It was important for us to give the kids something that was as normal as it could possibly be because of what we'd all been through. We'd all been through heck in a handbasket.”
It was vital for Johnson and the other ADs in the 4A league that the culminating events be legitimate, but also safe.
“When you come to a culminating situation, kids and parents know how it’s supposed to look,” said Johnson. “So, we tried to make it as much like it would have been if none of this had ever happened — knowing that, clearly, the pandemic and people's health and safety was more important than high school athletics.
“But we felt like we could be respectful of what was happening with health and safety, and still manage to host events that looked as much like a regular event and a regular year as possible. And that's what we did.”
He said the 4A classification and the 4A ADs in charge of the culminating week committee were “dialed in” and “steadfast” as they made state-level championships effective measures of student athleticism and drive.
It was quite a task indeed, and, as a result, Johnson and his colleagues were lauded by the community for their execution with the state track meet in May, and the kids had an experience unlike any other before.
Still, Johnson said running programs as they had to be run this past year due to COVID-19 will not be sustainable long term.
“If there was another year like this year, I probably would step down,” he admitted. “Every day honestly felt like a warzone. But when you looked around, it wasn't hard to realize that a lot of people were in the same situation.
“There were people who were out of work, and I have so many friends in this town who own businesses, like restaurants who were at 50% capacity or 25% capacity, and they were just having to bob and weave and juggle things to make it work and stay solvent,” Johnson said. “So, I always felt like as much as what we were doing was hard, I still had a paycheck; I still had a job. But [the experience] certainly wasn't fun.”
Although it was a struggle for much of the year, the experience brought Johnson and his associates closer together as a result.
“The camaraderie of my colleagues in the school, in the league, in the state … I always felt like we were all in it together,” he said. “We all knew what we were going through, so we commiserated together, and that brotherhood and sisterhood was important to just know [we weren’t] alone. We just had to get up and go to work every day.
“It was a different set of expectations, and an ever-changing landscape, but we were doing it knowing that we had seasons, kids were playing sports.”
Anyone who attended a Vikings sporting event this year could palpably feel the effect playing a live team sporting event had on the students at Siuslaw. It was as though some magic had returned to the campus.
“I haven’t ever asked an individual student, but I know if I [did], for all of those kids and all they went through, the fact that they got to participate in sports, even in a truncated situation was … not necessarily life-changing, but a lifesaver,” said Johnson. “I have never been through anything like this before in my life, and I never want to do it again. But I feel like we all got together, and we made it work.”
Fortunately, the 2021-22 school year looks to be even more promising on the activities front, with the OSAA resuming most of its normal duties and the majority of schools being at low-risk because of vaccinations.
“The OSAA is supposed to be back to normal again,” said Johnson, “so we're looking forward to normal-sized seasons and the normal number of contests — and the OSAA is going to hopefully take over state championships again.”
As Siuslaw Athletics moves toward its new normal, the department will spend the summer catching up on tasks that have been put off due to the madness of this recently ended school year’s activities.
“We're behind on scheduling,” said Johnson. “Normally, by spring break I've finished all the scheduling for the next year. And this year, because there were so many things that are changing every single day, every minute, we really didn’t have a chance to schedule our contests.
“We finished the fall, that’s all done except for cross country, it's on OSAA,” he said. “But we're still working on winter, and I haven’t even talked about spring stuff yet.”
Still — “We're just excited that there's going to a normal number of contests for kids,” he said. “This year was truncated, small and short, but at least it felt normal-ish; we got to play everything and have seasons that were shorter, but regular. So, we're just excited that there's going to be regular-sized seasons and a regular number of contests.”
Moving into the next school year, Siuslaw will still be taking precautions as mandated by the government, and much still remains to be seen with regard to where the community and the pandemic will be by fall.
“In regard to what happened with COVID, infrastructure was in place to handle it,” said Johnson. “We're anticipating there may still be limitations with risk factors in terms of spectators, but we're to the point now with vaccinations where even if we're still under the COVID principles, I feel like we probably still can have as many spectators as might want to get in.
“That's what I'm anticipating, and we'll just have to wait and see, because we really don't know.”
There is still a degree of uncertainty, as is the case with all things COVID-19, but what is clear is that athletics are moving back to a place of normalcy for the Vikings.