As a track and field coach, Ashley Mortenson felt the sadness of the prep sports spring season shutting down in March. As a cross country coach, she is feeling the excitement of prep sports — in some capacity — returning after months of being on hiatus because of COVID-19.
Today, Kodiak High’s cross country, football and tennis teams begin official practice for the 2020 fall season — ushering in smiles and enthusiasm for everybody involved.
“It probably feels a little different for me than it does for some of the other fall coaches,” said Mortenson Tuesday afternoon. “Having the proverbial rug pulled out from under us in March makes me tread with open hands for the season — we will take what we can get.”
For now, that will be practice, and Mortenson is more than okay with that.
The coach said there is no firm schedule for cross country and doesn’t expect to compete against another school until September. Dimond, out of Anchorage, has already canceled its August trip to The Rock, while Kodiak’s voyage to the Kenai Peninsula for an invitational in three weeks is in jeopardy because that region has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases.
“It’s funny for me to be sitting here saying we have no firm dates on the horizon, but at the same time I’m so grateful to be at a location where I don’t think practices are going to be shut down anytime soon — we are really sitting in a comfortable position as far as being able to train effectively, which is a lot more than a lot of people in our region can say.”
Because of a rapid rise in positive COVID-19 cases, the Anchorage School District has shut down sports until Aug. 5, while teams in the Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su borough school districts will start today.
Mortenson compared the start of this season to the beginning of last year’s season when teams around the state couldn’t practice because of poor air quality due to forest fires. Kodiak, though, never slowed down and practiced while other teams were idle.
“We are sitting in a similar fashion when a lot of our region teams are getting practice canceled because of the pandemic, and we are sitting real great down here — our numbers are fantastic. There is a lot to be thankful for with our community practicing good health.”
Mortenson has been hosting trail runs with her team twice a week since early July. The runs have been popular with her athletes.
“People are really ready for fall sports this year in the same way that our whole country is ready for Major League Baseball and all the excitement that came when those games started popping up again,” Mortenson said. “In a smaller sense, there is that community excitement for organized sports to pick up again.”
Cross country is the perfect sport during a global pandemic, with runners fanned out on trails. Besides emphasizing not sharing water bottles and not standing close together between workouts, it is business as usual.
“We are already on the trails, spread out away from crowds,” Mortenson said. “It is pretty simple adjustments for the training portions. Obviously, the competition side is going to look completely different.”
Mortenson said she would create intrasquad competitions and ask for community members to help keep her runners in race shape until “real” meets start.
“You can look at a year like this, a season like this and get really angry that it doesn’t look anything like a normal season or you can look at it and say, ‘let’s get creative, what can we do to train well, race well and challenge ourselves,”’ Mortenson said.
The cross country team meets at 4 p.m. outside the high school main entrance for the rest of the week. Mortenson said all practices would be conducted outside.
Outside of Kodiak High on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, many rising seniors tried on helmets and shoulder pads in anticipation of today’s first day of practice.
They spoke with glee as coaches tightened up chin straps.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 24 states have delayed the fall sports season, while five states — California, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia and Washington — will not play football this fall.
Third-year coach Bryan Ellsworth is thrilled that Alaska is not on that list.
“We are blessed and thankful that we have an opportunity to get out on the field,” Ellsworth said. “Even with the worst case of practicing for two weeks and can never play, at least we had those two weeks to instill new values or reinforce old ones that are important in going through stuff that we are going through right now.”
Practice during a pandemic will have a different feel for a sport drenched in contact. Coaches have to take the temperatures of participants and ask them a series of COVID-19-related questions before practicing.
Ellsworth said there would be cones sprinkled on the field to remind players of social distancing.
“It is going to require a lot of patients on everyone’s part,” he said. “A lot of getting used to new things and waves — the high-fives and chest bumps will have to be replaced with some other creative celebrations.”
The season’s opening games have already been pushed back a week by the Alaska School Activities Association. Kodiak is set to open at home against North Pole on Aug. 21. The regular season has also been shortened to seven games instead of eight.
“It is just good to get out there — and not necessarily compete, but to be involved and be around others,” Ellsworth said.
Interested players and volunteer coaches can show up for practice at 6 p.m. at Woody Way Field for the rest of the week.
Kodiak’s tennis team meets for the first time at 4 p.m. today at Baranof Park. Coach Steve Johnston expects a small turnout and said the travel portion of his season is “up in the air.”
“It is a wait and see season,” he said.