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‘I just want to play’: Players, coaches, ADs and officials eye safe, speedy return of high school sports

Gabe Baker just wants to play football.

“I’d do anything to play this game,” said the Nevada Union High School junior. “I’m really looking forward to it and looking forward to being with all the guys on the field again.”

He knows there’s a chance there won’t be a high school football season in the fall due to COVID-19, but he won’t let that uncertainty define his approach to the game. Baker, a versatile player on both sides of the ball, recently pulled together a home gym of sorts in his backyard and is working out six days a week, pushing his body to its limits in preparation for a high school football season that may or may not happen.

“If it was canceled that would be upsetting, for sure,” said Baker. “I just want to play.”

“Athletics is such a strong component to the district’s culture and its relationship to the community. The absence of that not only hurts the district, but the community, too.”— Brett McFaddenNJUHSD Superintendent

Baker is one of hundreds of Nevada Joint Union High School District student-athletes wondering if they will be able to compete in the fall or will see yet another season of high school athletics be swallowed up by the pandemic.

“The sooner students are able to practice and participate in athletics as well as other student activities and extracurricular events, the better off our community will be in the long run,” said Nevada Joint Union Superintendent Brett McFadden, noting the district is working toward the return of prep sports and other student activities with an emphasis on safety and efficiency. “Everything is based on the review and approval of our local health officials. But, our district intends to move diligently in the hopes of reestablishing our sports schedules next (school) year. Maybe they’re going to be shorter schedules, but we’re trying to move forward.”

McFadden said the district will be working with the California Interscholastic Federation and Sac-Joaquin Section officials as far as procedures to take for a safe return, adding that could mean a phased return using social distancing as well as other health and safety protocols over the summer months. And, in the fall, the possibility of sports without spectators.

“Everything is uncertain,” said McFadden. “But, my desire is to get kids back to practicing and conditioning using social distancing and health and safety protocols. Get them back to do that in groups, in safe groups.”

McFadden also stressed the importance of coordination between schools from different counties and school districts which are now reopening at different paces.

“We can try and do anything we want to do, but we also have to try and coincide with the other schools in our league,” said McFadden. “Everybody in the league needs to be on the same page. We’re all trying to operate as one entity.”

Nevada Union is a member of the Foothill Valley League, along with Placer High, Lincoln High, Rio Linda High, Ponderosa High and Oakmont high schools.

Athletic directors at Nevada Union and Bear River both expressed cautious optimism that sports will return for the 2020-21 school year, but at what point and in what form is still to be determined.

“There’s a lot of question marks right now,” said Bear River Athletic Director Scott Savoie. “We’re still waiting for the CIF and the governor, really, to decide exactly what school is going to look like in the fall. Once we have an idea of what school will look like, we will start to get a clearer picture of what sports will look like.”

Nevada Union Athletic Director Daniel Crossen said, “It’s certainly a challenge. One that we are up for. And, what I take comfort in is that we have a team of staff members, coaches, parents and community members that are totally supportive. It’s a challenge, but one that’s not insurmountable with the resources we have in place and the passion of the people that are there to help out.”


High school sports programs also have financial issues to deal with after several spring and summer fundraisers have been canceled due to the COVID-19 shelter-in-place mandate.

“It’s huge,” Nevada Union football coach Brad Sparks said of the financial hit caused by the loss of their fundraising efforts. “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to make that up. I’m going to cut costs down to just transportation, Gatorade, helmet parts and equipment, and mouth pieces. Basically safety stuff. If we do play, we won’t have all the frills and stuff. We won’t even have the money to replace the uniforms from last season.”

Sparks also noted the football program has waved all signage fees at Hooper Stadium for the team’s sponsors.

“It’s the least we could do to support the local businesses that have always supported us,” he said.

There’s also the possibility of hosting spectatorless sports events.

“That’s one we still need to figure out,” said Savoie. “Because there’s still lots of costs. We’re going to have to pay officials and have an ambulance there. There’s lots of things we still have to pay for. Football, basketball and girls volleyball bring in the lion’s share of what we use to pay for our officiating costs, which is around $27,000 a year. That’s just officiating.”

High school athletic programs count on the funds that come in through gate fees, with football and girls volleyball (both fall sports) being two of the biggest revenue generators for the year.

“It would be a huge hit,” said Crossen. “The number one way we raise funds is through our gate. So to not have that would be a major hit to our bottom line and that concerns me.”


In a normal year, Sparks and the football team would be getting their summer conditioning program started next week.

“Normally, we’d be preparing, getting stronger, getting faster, working on our conditioning and working on the skill set that we need to perfect our offense and defense. That’s what we do this time of year, but now, we won’t be doing that.”

Sparks said it’s frustrating to not be able to practice, but he understands the situation. He’s more concerned about simply connecting with his players in a meaningful way.

“I’m more concerned about our kids’ mental health than I am about winning a championship,” Sparks said. “We want them to be great young men, and when we’re sitting around twiddling our thumbs, we’re not working on those skills and I want to work on those skills. Preparing our young men to be competent, hard working, trustworthy, high moral-fiber young men. Right now, we just don’t have those connections with our guys.”

Bear River girls volleyball coach Matt MacDonald is also focused on his student-athletes’ mental health.

“Our kids are itching to get back,” he said. “But, the number one thing I keep telling them is to take care of their well-being. We have not really given them a workout or anything like that. … There’s a couple kids that are thriving through this, and then there’s a lot of kids that are struggling with this. Their emotional well-being is a big thing for us, and we want to make sure they are in a good spot.”


There won’t be a uniform rollout for when all California high schools will be allowed to resume athletic activity, which could cause some programs to get a leg up on others. While that is not preferable for the schools that get started later, it is low on the list of complaints for local coaches and athletic directors.

“I’ll tell you, most of our schools in the Sac-Joaquin Section are in the same boat,” said Sparks, citing conversations with several other league coaches. “There’s not a lot of preparation going on. There’s not much we can do because we can’t use facilities. But we have had quite a few FaceTime meetings with our kids. We’re going to do some virtual practices through Zoom and Hudl. But right now, there’s not much anybody can do.”

The Sac-Joaquin Section, which local high schools are a part of, is the second largest in the state and spans 11 counties, including Nevada, Placer, Sacramento and Yuba, among others.

Wheatland Union High School’s football team has already been cleared by its county officials and resumed football activities. Wheatland is in the Northern Section.

For Sparks and the majority of high school coaches in the state, a return date is still unclear.

“I’m preparing a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C,” he said.

The CIF is set to meet next week and develop guidelines and standards for how programs can begin to return to fields and courts in a safe manner. That will just be a guide, not a mandate. It will all come down to each individual county’s guidelines and restrictions as they emerge from their respective shelter-in-place mandates.

“Athletics is such a strong component to the district’s culture and its relationship to the community,” said McFadden. “The absence of that not only hurts the district, but the community, too.”


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To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email wford@theunion.com.

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