REDMOND — The air was crisp and the stadium lights were bright on a fall evening at Ridgeview High.
Spectators gathered along the outside of the stadium fence, making the familiar chatter that accompanies high school football games.
Inside the fence, football was being played.
But there were no pads worn by players and helmets with facemasks were swapped for the various types of masks that have become the norm over the past several months.
As one spectator decked out in Ridgeview purple said walking alongside the gated fence, “it isn’t Friday, but it is something.”
This week, Central Oregon football teams began playing 7-on-7 football, a non-contact form of football without offensive and defensive linemen and with no running game. During the games, linemen are doing their own form of competition. Monday night at Ridgeview there was a bench-press competition to see who could complete the most reps of 135 pounds.
Passing leagues and linemen challenges are common practices for high school teams during the summer months in preparation for the fall season.
But not this year.
“I told our guys that this is like a college spring ball season,” said Sisters football coach Gary Thorson. “We have a great opportunity to get a whole lot done.”
The start of 7-on-7 practices has intersected with what would normally be one of the final weeks of the traditional football season.
With Oregon being one of the 15 states in the country to have no official football competition in the fall of 2020, passing league competitions have begun to pop up throughout the state. The Oregon School Activities Association eased its restrictions to allow high school coaches to coach 7-on-7 teams and to compete against club teams.
“Because 7-on-7 is not an OSAA sport the OSAA allowed schools and clubs to co-mingle,” said Ridgeview football coach Patrick Pileggi.“It has allowed us to be more flexible with what we can do.”
School districts have given their football programs the opportunity to compete as their football team, as is the case for Redmond and Ridgeview, or operate as a club, which is the case for the Bend-La Pine schools.
While some parts of the state are holding competitions and tournaments, Central Oregon schools are treating them more as glorified practices.
Every 11-man area team besides Bend High has elected to play 7-on-7.
While primarily a summer training activity for high school teams, 7-on-7 football has grown in popularity outside of the schools’ seasons. Much like travel basketball or volleyball, the 7-on-7 football industry hosts tournaments throughout the course of the year, in a way making football a year-round sport.
In Oregon, where full-contact football is prohibited by the Oregon Health Authority due to COVID-19, the popularity of non-contact football (which is allowed by the OHA) is gaining steam.
That has benefited Sisters. Due to recent declining participation numbers for football, the Outlaws opted to play down from their standard Class 4A schedule and compete against 3A schools this year.
But over the past few months, even with the football season still months away, participation has been up not only for the high school but perhaps more importantly, for Sisters Middle School.
“If we didn’t have Season 1, there are some players that wouldn’t have come out,” Thorson said. “We told them we aren’t going to be padded up, no contact, now they are hooked. It has been a blessing. Our middle school numbers are exploding. People are wanting to get involved. We are making the most of it.”
While the hope is to play the full-contact football season, which is set to open for practices starting Feb. 22, 2021, discussions between the OSAA and its football contingency group are underway for the possibility of 7-on-7 replacing full-contact football in order to have some sort of season.
But those decisions are still several months away from happening.
“We have mentioned it as a last-last-last resort if the governor doesn’t ease the restrictions,” said Redmond coach Seth Womack, who is also a member of the OSAA football contingency group. “We haven’t spent a lot of time on it because it would be the utmost last resort for football if we might use that as a competitive season.”
It is not the standard fall, but Central Oregon high school football teams are making the most given the circumstances.
“Our kids are happy and having fun,” Womack said. “And that is why we do what we do.”