ENTERPRISE — The popping of football pads is starting up once again in Wallowa County.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday, Feb. 10, announced that the Oregon Health Authority’s ban on outdoor contact sports will be revised, lifting for some counties the prohibition that had left teams either unable to play football at all or forced them into a passing, touch or flag-football scenario.
“School sports play an important role in fostering students’ mental, emotional and physical health,” Brown said in a press release. “We will proceed with caution, to ensure that teams are following health and safety precautions to protect our athletes, their families and their communities.”
Schools can resume outdoor contact sports based on where their county risk level is at. In low- and moderate-risk counties, practice and games will be allowed to resume based on forthcoming guidance from the OHA. Counties marked high and extreme risk would have to meet additional stipulations before they could return to the gridiron.
Wallowa County is currently a low-risk county, meaning the Wallowa, Enterprise and Joseph football teams all would be eligible to take the field. Teams began full-contact practice on Monday, Feb. 15.
“We’re excited to be here,” Wallowa head coach Matt Brockamp said. “The kids are excited to have the opportunity to play, for sure. We’re just moving forward cautiously.”
Joseph head coach Duncan Christman said the news was a “sigh of relief.”
“There’s (been) no real sense of competition, and there is not a solid drive to compete with anyone,” he said. “Being able to have a legit contact football season, it’s shaping up to be a big deal for us. (It puts) that goal orientation and that (desire) for getting something done back into them.”
Eagles senior football player Jonah Staigle agreed.
“Besides the passing league, we haven’t had any sports whatsoever. Even if it’s a little chilly outside everyone is excited,” he said. “We had a lot of guys that really improved with the passing league, and we have had guys in the gym since then.”
Enterprise head coach Rusty Eschler had received a tip earlier last week that the change was likely coming, so he wasn’t shocked when the news came out. He was, though, surprised the state made the change.
“For a whole year it’s been nothing, and now it’s going to happen,” he said. “I feel for the kids is the biggest thing. You got some seniors, they got to play tackle their junior year, but they have been pretty much locked down since last (March). I know they were really anxious to play.”
Among the Outlaw players who were jubilant about the return was senior Trace Evans.
“When they said they were going to allow football I was blown away,” he said. “I had hoped seeing signs from other states like Washington opening up we could see the science and facts and that it’s not (severely) affecting kids our age. When it was (announced) I was ecstatic. It means a lot to me and to kids in my school.”
It would be the first full-contact action for the football teams since 2019. All three schools took part in a 5-on-5 passing league during Season 1 in the fall.
The passing league did provide a benefit for some local schools, and for Wallowa, it helped the team hone in its high-speed passing attack.
“We just built upon those passing route combinations, and some of the communication systems. It was all good to continue to build those pass route combinations and communication styles to continue to develop and refine an aerial passing game,” Brockamp said. “I felt that we were also able to really work on getting the ball out of our hands quickly and develop that passing game. That was certainly something we needed to improve on. All the passing game stuff in the fall was pretty well dialed in.”
Staigle added that the league helped give the offense a crisper look.
“(Because of) that passing league, our routes are cleaner, everyone is faster,” he said. “By the time we have gained this new speed and now we can incorporate contact, (it) definitely is a plus for this season.”
Eschler said with the Outlaws running a more traditional offense, the passing league didn’t serve the benefit it did schools, like Wallowa, that are more pass-happy. But it helped with running routes and was beneficial to the Enterprise defensive backs.
The season is slated to begin the week of March 1. Teams get five weeks of competition, and a sixth culminating week, which OSAA is meeting about today, Feb. 17, to outline plans for.
Eschler said he going to try and take as much of a business as usual approach as possible, but said there will be a lot of differences.
“As much as we can with it being such a short season, and not being able to have contact prior to this ... we’re going to have to cram a lot of (information) into them,” in a short time, he said.
What the schedule for the schools will look like remains uncertain. Several adjacent counties to Wallowa, including Union and Umatilla, are still in extreme risk. Baker County is back down to low risk.
Christman said his team will be ready for however many games it could get.
“We’re looking at it definitely knowing and going in as an abridged season, but (if it’s) one game, two games (or) five games, we’re going to give it our all.”
Brockamp said the seniors on his team are athletes he coached when they were in fourth grade, and is excited to be able to coach them this spring.
“To not have the opportunity for those kids to play sports their senior year would have been a travesty,” he said. “Even if it was just one game, one day, I will coach these kids. They are great kids to coach and a pleasure to coach. I love practice, I love the game, even if it’s just one game I’ll coach these kids.”
Football is the only contact sport back, however. Indoor contact sports, such as basketball and wrestling, continue to be prohibited by the OHA, the OSAA pointed out in a tweet.
“We still have some work to do,” OSAA Executive Director Peter Weber said. “There are still some activities that can’t go right now.”