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Oklahoma high schools remain cautious as they turn attention to winter sports: 'We try not to take it for granted'

Norman's Kelbie Washington, left, tries to get past Edmond North's Toni Papahronis during a game on Jan. 17 at Edmond North. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]
Norman's Kelbie Washington, left, tries to get past Edmond North's Toni Papahronis during a game on Jan. 17 at Edmond North. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]

Lonnie Nunley called it one of his hardest days as Cache’s athletic director.

After beating Tecumseh last week to open the high school football playoffs, Cache announced Wednesday it was forfeiting its second-round game against Blanchard.

Cache recently had a rise in COVID-19 cases, and close to half of its students were forced to quarantine. With less than 15 players available this week, Nunley and school administrators decided to hand over the game.

“That’s sad for our kids, but it’s sad for the many teams in the state that are going through this,” Nunley said.

For Cache and school districts throughout Oklahoma, the future of high school sports remains uncertain. But with winter sports seasons kicking into gear, districts are planning on how they will move forward. Some, including Cache and Oklahoma City Public Schools, have suspended winter sports. However, most are attempting to carry on as they did with fall activities.

Edmond Public Schools athletic director Mike Nunley — Lonnie’s brother — is hopeful his district will hold winter athletic activities but anticipates limitations, including fewer contests than usual.

Oklahoma high school sports fans can also expect limited seating capacity and social-distancing policies at some schools.

For Moore High athletic director Chad Mashburn, the strict procedures are necessary and vital for the safety of everyone involved.

“We know it can shut down any time so we try not to take it for granted,” he said.

The reality of winter sports shutting down is something many schools remember after all activities were canceled indefinitely in March. It wasn’t until the fall when schools resumed athletic competitions.

But the more that is discovered about the virus, the more it’s becoming apparent that playing indoor sports will likely bring more challenges.

Linda Thompson, an immunologist at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, said one of the biggest hurdles teams will face is the inability to test the athletes and coaches.

“The real problem with COVID-19 is that many people can have the disease and not know it,” she said. “So that means that asymptomatic people can spread it. If you knew you were sick, you could just stay away but especially children, most of them don’t get any symptoms whatsoever.”

Children and high school athletes are in the low-risk group and are more likely to be asymptomatic. Without knowing that they are infected or sick, the athletes could spread the airborne virus to someone who is in a high-risk group, such as a parent, grandparent or other family member.

“There are two types of droplets,” Thompson said. “Some of the droplets are relatively large, and they fall to the ground relatively fast. Under normal circumstances you wouldn’t expect them to travel more than six feet before they fall to the ground, and that’s where the six-foot rule comes into play.

“But then there are smaller droplets that are so tiny that they can stay in the air for a long time, and they can also carry the virus. And if you’re in an indoor space where there’s a lot of people around, they could circulate in the air for hours actually.”

During fall sports seasons, many of the events are outside, which helps prevent the droplets from staying in the same place for hours.

But even with all of the challenges that winter sports will face, a safe season is possible.

Oklahoma has already proven it can play indoors safely after successfully crowning volleyball state champions.

Winter sports will now try to replicate volleyball’s success.

Nick Sardis

Nick Sardis joined The Oklahoman in 2017, and he covers high school sports. Born and raised in Norman, he played baseball at Norman North High School and is a student at the University of Oklahoma. Read more ›

James Jackson

James D. Jackson joined The Oklahoman in January 2020 to cover high school sports. He a University of Central Oklahoma graduate. During his time at UCO, James served as a sports reporter and Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper, The Vista.... Read more ›