Game on: After a year without organized athletics, the Nevada County sports scene is slowly coming back to life | TheUnion.com
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Game on: After a year without organized athletics, the Nevada County sports scene is slowly coming back to life

The Bear River varsity baseball team wears their face coverings while practicing earlier this month at Bear River High School. A year after sports across the country were put to a halt due to COVID, coaches like Russell Bracket are erring on the side of caution.
Photo: Elias Funez

High school football teams are battling it out on Friday nights, baseball fields at local parks are peppered with Little Leaguers getting back into the swing of things and soon the over-the-hillers who frequent the local slow-pitch softball diamonds will be back at it as well.

The Nevada County sports scene is slowly, and somewhat tentatively, coming back after being almost completely shuttered for a year due to COVID-19.

As various sports, across an array of age levels, find what works for them within the state and county safety guidelines, many local athletes are rushing back to the field, trying to make up for lost time.



“I figured since I had so much time off, and wasn’t doing anything, I might as well do as much as I can, while I can,” said Bear River High School senior Jacob Ayestaran, who plays on the Bruins’ football, baseball and golf teams, which are all playing during the same season this year.

For Ayestaran, it’s school until 12:45 p.m., then golf practice until 3 p.m., followed by baseball practice until 5 p.m., and then he caps it all with football practice until 6:30 p.m. And, it’s all done with a big smile.



Nevada Union Miners varsity head coach Brad Sparks dons his face covering while conducting practice on the field earlier this month at Nevada Union High School.
Photo: Elias Funez

“For the seniors, it’s a very special year, because we weren’t sure we would get a sports season,” he said.

Ayestaran isn’t the only student-athlete looking to squeeze what they can out of the abbreviated 2020-21 high school sports year and make the best of a tough situation.

“I just want to be a role model for the younger guys and help us win games,” said senior Nick Baltz, a member of the Bear River baseball team. “There’s no league season and no playoffs this year, so I just want to win the games we have and prepare the younger guys for the upcoming years.”

For many young athletes, the past year has been extremely taxing on their mental wellbeing. The return of organized sports has helped alleviate some of those woes.

“I think it’s really good for everyone who has been locked up in their houses, and unable to practice, to be out here,” said Nevada Union football player Gabe Baker. “It’s really important to all of us. Everyone’s mood changed in a good way once we started practicing again.”

Justin McKim, a member of the Bear River football team, said it’s easy to see the impact sports have.

“Not being out here has been truly devastating to these kids’ mental health,” the senior said. “Being out here does amazing things for our mental health.”

For many high school coaches, what ends up on the scoreboard has always been secondary to their main objective of mentoring the young people in their care. And, without the usual face-to-face time, it becomes more difficult for coaches to have the impact they once did.

“Football is really important, but it’s really about the relationships we build,” said Nevada Union High School football coach Brad Sparks. “It’s about building these young men into great men. To be great husbands, great fathers and great contributors in this community.”

WORST KIND OF ROLLER COASTER

Signs such as this one at Grass Valley’s Les Eva Field at Memorial Park were a common sight, keeping people off baseball and other sporting fields during the height of COVID restrictions last year.
Photo: Elias Funez

For athletic directors, coaches and athletes alike, it’s been a roller coaster of a year very few could have imagined.

“Never, never, never thought we’d be here a year later,” said Bear River Athletic Director Scott Savoie. “I did not see this thing lasting as long as it did, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. I think it threw us all for a loop.

“I just felt terrible last year for our spring sport athletes, but had no idea it would carry over to not just fall sports, but winter, too.”

Nevada Union Athletic Director Dan Crossen said the last year has been incredibly trying for many, but he’s seen great resilience from Nevada Union’s coaches and student-athletes.

“I remember thinking how real this is, and how real it is for our kids,” he recalled. “I think of our seniors that missed out on finishing their senior season for the spring sports. I think about our boys volleyball team, they had dreams of defending their section championship. It was unfortunate.

“Going through this whole process… I have seen us at our lowest and I’ve also seen just the ingenuity of so many people in this community to try to do what’s best for the kids.”

After the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 high school spring sports season and then the 2020 fall and winter season, few were optimistic there would be a 2021 spring season at all. But, when certain outdoor athletics were given the go ahead in late January, and other sports were given the parameters needed to be met to begin their respective seasons, coaches and players leaped to meet the challenge, said Crossen.

“We are adaptable creatures and we will adapt to meet these challenges,” he said. “And, there will be new challenges in the future, but we will be better prepared for it because we’ve gone through a fire this last year.”

Nevada Union cross-country runners get in the habit of donning their face coverings after completing a race at Railhead Park in Auburn earlier this month.
Photo: Elias Funez

STAYING ON THE FIELD

It’s not just high school sports that are back. Little Leagues have begun practices and adult rec leagues are gearing up for their return. Organizers for big local sporting events such as the Barbara Schmidt-Millar Celebration of Life Triathlon are also hopeful they will be able to hold their event in 2021 after having to cancel in 2020.

For athletics to continue its steady return, it will take a concerted effort from the community.

“It’s going to take our entire community to do their part to eradicate (COVID-19) from our community,” said Crossen. “Which will allow us to have the conditions needed to put on these events, not just for the kids, their parents and their peers, but for the public as well.”

To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, email wford@theunion.com.



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