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Tom Rysinski: With masks and sanitizer, Pahrump Valley High School athletes return to practice

Updated July 9, 2020 - 11:39 pm

Chris Roberts crouched in the shade in front of the home bleachers at Trojan Field on Monday afternoon to do what would have been thought bizarre just weeks ago but now has become routine.

The Pahrump Valley High School boys soccer coach was taking players’ temperatures. Not having a fever is no guarantee of not having the novel coronavirus, but having a fever is cause for concern no matter what the cause, and this is no time to take chances.

So there was Roberts, checking each player before he went to the hand sanitizer and then took the field.

“Right now, everything is sanitized prior to practice — all balls, cones, everything we touch,” Roberts said. “Prior to practice we have hand sanitizer for all of the boys to use. I’ll be putting them in groups of probably eight, and the groups are going to keep their own balls. They are going to be as well separated as possible, staying 6 feet apart, which isn’t too bad in soccer.”

Girls volleyball, girls soccer and football players also were back at school this week, making practice look as normal as possible under anything-but-normal circumstances. Balancing the fact that healthy young people are among the least likely to suffer major consequences from COVID-19 is the fact that a steady trickle of new positive tests has been reported each day recently by Nye County’s public information officer and the insidious fact that many people with no symptoms at all could have the virus and pass it on to others who might not be so fortunate.

But Roberts, girls volleyball coach Jill Harris, girls soccer coach Julie Carrington and football coach Joe Clayton are doing the best they can under the circumstances, making sure players are adhering to guidelines of the National Federation of State High School Associations and the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association. The latter, of course, takes direction from the former.

“When we come in, everybody has to come in wearing a mask,” Carrington said. “We give them GermX and then write their name on a piece of paper and ask them questions about how they feel, and we take their temperature and write that down. We put them in groups of 10, and we keep each group separate. They keep the masks on during that group while they’re working, unless they’re running, and then they take off the mask. Then they stay 6 feet apart.”

Sounds simple, right? Yet more than once during Tuesday practice, Carrington had to shout,”You’re not 6 feet apart!” as her players jogged around the grass practice field near the end of practice. Shouting about wearing masks was not needed, although once she had to shout to a player to take a mask off.

“You in the maroon shirt, get that mask down!” she called across the field. “You can’t wear a mask when you’re running! And stay 6 feet apart!”

Of course, everyone had to stay 6 feet apart, and for the most part they did, which is a little trickier indoors.

Ask Harris. She again has a large turnout for volleyball, but with her in the room only nine players at a time can be doing drills in Pahrump Valley’s gym.

“Right now we have 37 that have signed up for open gym, so I’m betting on somebody not showing up every night because otherwise we’ll have to run another session because we’re only allowed 10 in the gym,” Harris said.

And they could have had even more.

“I had a lot of parents of the younger kids asking if they could come, but we don’t have room for them,” Harris said. “Usually we would say sure, we could have a hundred in the gym.”

So in order to stay within the prescribed capacity, Harris is running multiple sessions.

“I start at 4, do a session at 4, a session at 5, a session at 6 and a session at 7,” she said. “It’s not like outside where you can have 50.”

Harris was as upbeat during that conversation as I’ve ever seen her. And sure enough, she found a silver lining in the predicament.

“When you have a small number like this, you can get a ton of reps in. You get a lot done,” she said. “At the top of the hour, grab your stuff and you’re out, and the next group comes in. They go through the protocol, you ask the questions, take the temperatures, we spray the balls down and we get going.”

Ah, the questions. Each coach must be sure each player is not suffering any effects that could be attributed to COVID-19.

“When the kids show up we have to ask them health questions — sore throat, shortness of breath, fever, things like that — and once they’re clear we make sure their temperature’s good, and then it’s normal,” Clayton said with no trace of irony in the “normal.” “Six feet apart, social distancing, masks when necessary.

“When I say when necessary it’s when they’re within tight quarters with their teammates. But we’ve got plenty of room to spread them out.”

Like Harris, Clayton kept his players in groups of nine, going from station to station doing various drills, with two groups at any one time designated as resting groups. Being in a rest group was the quickest way to get a tongue lashing about safety protocols.

“If you guys are next to each other, you better get a mask on,” Clayton said more than once in one form or another. He and coach Dan Nagle each yelled over to the sideline more than once. “We talked about this!”

It’s simple really. Strenuous activity, don’t wear a mask. Low-key activity or rest periods, wear a mask or stay 6 feet apart.

In fact, about the only time the entire football team did anything simultaneously was when the players waved and said hi to Destini Osterhoudt when the team manager came out to see if Clayton knew Craig Rieger’s password to the computer in the wrestling room.

She knows it now. So do I, but I can’t imagine it doing me much good.

Back to the masks.

“They will have masks when we’re on down times,” Roberts said. “Obviously, when we’re running very hard they will take them off, but they will still be in groups. Then after that they will be able to put their masks back on once they’ve recuperated.”

“If you’re running put that mask down,” Carrington said. “If you’re waiting, put that mask up.”

See? As I said, not complicated at all.

It might be uncomplicated, yet people will still bark about it. Even in a pandemic in which 3 million people in the United States have been infected with the virus — one-third of them just in the past month — a relatively painless way to ensure individuals won’t spread the virus gets everyone’s panties in a bunch. It’s time to grow up.

Wearing a mask during a pandemic that has claimed more than 130,000 lives in this country — the United States set a record for positive tests five times in the past nine days, with Wednesday showing a record of more than 59,000 — is not a political act. Even worse, on Thursday our three most-populated states — California, Texas and Florida — each set a record for deaths since the pandemic began.

Yep. Deaths. Wake up, folks. It’s not “disappearing,” and hot weather sure as heck isn’t killing it.

And somehow, not wearing a mask has become a political act. And, offense intended, that’s nuts. It’s a health issue, not a political issue. And trying to make political hay out of it when states that “reopened” are already starting to shut back down is disgraceful. Lives and livelihoods are both at stake.

Against that backdrop, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that simply posting a picture of the first day of football practice on this paper’s Facebook page would bring about a response worthy of a post suggesting we should replace math with devil worship for all sophomores. But I was surprised.

It truly never dawned on me that anyone would take offense to such a photo, or, worse, suggest it was placed intentionally to make a point. Slow news day? No, Sir. It’s the first day of football practice at a school in which sports in the spring were cut off after a couple of weeks. Nothing athletic has been done at Pahrump Valley High School in four months.

Of course I wanted to be there. It’s what I do. I take a few pictures, and I let people know that I care enough about these things to wake up at 4 a.m., crawl into the shower, grab my Irish flag bandana I use as a face covering and drive over the mountains to be there when practice starts. I’m not there to make a political statement by posting pictures of people wearing or not wearing masks.

“People are angry at this or that, and if you’re not doing anything high-intensity, a mask isn’t a big deal,” Roberts said. “The NIAA rule is basically that it is ‘highly recommended’ to have a mask, but during strenuous activity it’s not a requirement.

“Everyone’s an internet warrior, and everyone has their own cause. But with this, I’m going to be recommending that we use these wet ones that also keep you cool. They stay cool for a half hour, then you re-wet them with your own water and put them back on. It keeps you cool and covers your mouth as well. It’s mostly for working conditions, but it serves a dual purpose.”

I own one of those things. I have no idea where it is, but I own one of them. And they work well. Roberts is on to something here.

But for now, most of the athletes are wearing surgical-style masks and putting them up or down depending on what they’re doing.

“Not one person has said anything about the mask, so I’m really appreciative of that,” Carrington said.

Um, Julie, I hate to break this to you, but, well …

“At least they don’t say it to me,” she said with a laugh.

“When they do high-intensity workouts, obviously they have to be able to breathe,” Clayton said. “It could be doing maxes on the weight bench, any time of sprinting, some of the foot-agility drills. But warmups, things like that, it’s their choice as long as they are spaced accordingly.”

So far, coaches have not detected much apprehension in their players about playing a sport during the pandemic.

“None,” Harris said. “Any kids that have played for me before, nobody said that.

“We’ve got to have sports for these kids. That’s part of the reason we’ve had a huge turnout. They haven’t done anything since March, and then they didn’t open the pool.”

“We don’t know how (the virus) really works, so it’s just about safety,” Carrington said as roosters crowed in the background. “Kids want to play, and we’ve go to do what we can to help them.”

“We figured we’d lose a few with parents that are a little nervous about having their kids around other kids, but so far I think they feel the same way we do,” Clayton said. “We’re going to take every precaution we can to go about business as usual.”

Then there’s the elephant in the room. All of this might be moot.

There is no guarantee that schools will open on time, or open at all. And if they do open, whenever that is, there is no guarantee that sports will be played. In a less-populated area such as Nye County, the virus might be more of an inconvenience than a crisis, but in Clark County the situation is quite different.

And I don’t know if you’ve checked any high school sports schedules, but if Clark County schools aren’t playing, Pahrump Valley doesn’t have a season.

“It’s a fear that Clark County isn’t able to open up, then we won’t be able to play anybody,” Roberts said. “Hopefully, everyone is able to take it safely, open up and we’ll be able to have a season this year.”

“I think parents have brought that up,” Carrington said of the possibility of a lost season. “Everybody is basing it on Clark County, because without them we don’t have a season. We technically have a schedule, but until this gets cleared up, what do you do with that?

“The girls know it’s a possibility. They don’t want to think about it as much. The seniors didn’t get to graduate the way they wanted to graduate, and for the upcoming seniors it’s in the back of their minds, but they don’t want to talk about it.

“Using GermX, using masks, I think we should be totally fine. I really think they need to play.”

Even with a large turnout of 75 players, Clayton said he hasn’t seen his players express any pessimism.

“Honestly, no they haven’t,” Clayton said. “It’s still so early, being Day 2, I think they’re just so excited to be able to do something and get out of the house. For the most part, they seem excited. Obviously they’re tired and sore after Day 1, but their attitude has been great.

“There are so many options: The season could be delayed and start in September, or they could cancel the season. There are three or four different options we’re aware of, but like I told the players and the coaching staff, we have to prepare every day as if there is a football season. That’s where the mental part of it comes in. We’ve been very clear with the players that could possibly happen just so they’re prepared mentally.

“At any time it could be shut down, and they would have to continue their workouts at home as much as possible.”

I want to remain as optimistic as possible, but each day another hint of what might be on the horizon pops up — a Division III college cancels football season, Boise State drops four sports, a couple of dozen players at a big-time school test positive, the possibility of college football in the spring is discussed. Just this week, the Big Ten announced its teams will play only conference games this fall, and the Ivy League became the first Division I conference to call off fall sports.

Don’t laugh. The Ivy League was the first to call off its basketball tournaments. There was criticism. But two days later, the NBA and NHL shut down, and reopening hasn’t been all that smooth. Just because money doesn’t play as big of a role in Ivy League sports as it does in the major conferences doesn’t mean their decision won’t be repeated.

“I think other conferences around the country are going to follow,” Columbia athletic director Peter Pilling told the New York Times.

“With the information available to us today regarding the continued spread of the virus, we simply do not believe we can create and maintain an environment for intercollegiate athletic competition that meets our requirements for safety and acceptable levels of risk,” the league’s statement read.

Eight colleges between Hanover, New Hampshire and Philadelphia might be very far away, and Pahrump might seem isolated from the real world, but eventually some of the real world trickles in.

We don’t know what the next month holds. If nothing else, COVID-19 has created a very fluid situation, where one day it’s a hoax, two weeks later it’s a national emergency and two days after that we have it under control. And that was in March, when things weren’t on any level under control.

So it’s anybody’s guess. One thing I know for sure is that everybody, and I mean everybody, wants the schools to open as close to on time as practical. Forget the incoherent ramblings of any bombastic, blustering boob you might have seen on television, nobody would benefit politically from not opening schools. If anything, opening schools too soon and then having an outbreak would hurt somebody politically, as would not opening schools at all.

In any event, it should be a decision made at the local level. And I’m glad it’s not my decision.

But rest assured the athletic department at Pahrump Valley High School is taking the safety of its student-athletes very seriously. Every coach is making sure the equipment is sanitized, players are checked for signs of illness before they take the field, and masks and social distancing are being practiced as per NIAA guidelines.

And the soccer balls are still being passed, the agility drills are still being done on the football field, volleyball players are still working on skills, and coaches are still focused on improving their players. In short, the student-athletes are back doing what they love to do, and no matter what the end result might be, that’s a good thing. They need this.

And so do I.

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