The inactive nature of the last year hasn’t exactly sat well with Luke Dreyer.
A sophomore distance runner and basketball player at Bakersfield Christian High School, Dreyer, like most athletes his age, cites a “highly competitive nature” as one of his primary personality traits.
That side of him has been squashed since COVID-19 halted all local high school sporting events last March. And while he’s been able to return to campus for a few team workouts, Dreyer says it’s been a poor substitute for going head-to-head with other schools.
“If you’ve ever played sports before, you know that nothing is ever like going into a game or a race or whatever it is,” he said. “There’s nothing like doing an actual competition.”
Though long-term options remain limited, Dreyer and a select few of his peers will, at long last, get to experience the thrill of competition again this week.
While Kern County remains in purple, the most restrictive of California’s four-tiered COVID-19 tracking system, a recent state ruling has allowed cross country teams to hold competitions in this tier, provided they gain approval from schools and districts.
And while schools at the Kern High School District still haven’t been given the green light to resume, some outside the district moved forward with plans to get cross country teams back on the course. Those plans will come to fruition Wednesday, when Wasco hosts Bakersfield Christian.
Wasco will also host Garces Memorial on Thursday. Boys teams will race at 4 p.m. with the girls running immediately after. Races will begin at the Wasco High School Sports Complex and wind through nearby West Side Park.
Wasco coach Omar Garcia knows there will be a lot of eyes on him over the next few days, and says he’s happy to face the pressure.
“I take great pride and I’m blessed that the schools trust me to host them,” Garcia said. “And I want to do a great job to show that it can be done safely and it can be done in such a way that the kids are staying safe and they’re competing. I’m going to take this very serious and make sure I minimize as much as I can.”
To minimize any risk, the school is putting several safety protocols in place.
Prior to the race, teams will be separated on opposite ends of the facility and they aren’t allowed to mingle. Competitors have to wear masks at the starting line, and though they are allowed to remove them during the race, they must be reapplied when it’s over.
Athletes will also be separated at race’s end. Wasco runners will be instructed to cross on the left side of the finish line, while opponents will cross on the right.
Though difficult, such adjustments are seen as essential to first-year BCHS coach Toni Scruggs. Still hoping to race against others in the county this spring, she says its imperative things go off without a hitch.
“We have a certain responsibility because we’re setting a precedent,” Scruggs said. “If someone gets sick from this event (they’ll say) ‘we told you so.’ I really just want to show that this is how you do it right, this is how you compete and are safe.”
The modified race setup isn’t the only challenge these teams are facing.
Participation is way down at all three schools. Garcia expected to have 70 competitors at one point, but will have just 14 girls and seven boys at his disposal.
Garces, which normally has between 35 and 50 runners, has just 12 this year, with eight girls and four boys. BCHS will have six boys and five girls.
Opportunities for additional races are also few and far between, as neither BCHS nor Wasco have anything on their schedules beyond this week.
Garces, which already had one race canceled and had a request to attend another denied, currently has tentative plans to compete at the Golden Bear Invitational in Hanford on Feb. 26 and the Woodlake Invitational on March 13.
But with so much up in the air, coach Susan Walker says it’s important for her athletes to level out their expectations for what this season will be.
“Basically, everything I’ve told the kids this year (is) nothing’s in stone,” said Walker, now in her 33rd year as the Rams’ head coach. “I’m putting everything in pencil, therefore if we have to take stuff away it doesn’t feel like such a letdown.”
At the moment, opponents won’t come from the Kern High School District. In January, School Support Services Director Stan Greene said the KHSD wasn’t ready to send its athletes back into action. In a text to The Californian on Tuesday, Greene said he planned to give an update at the next school board meeting, a date for which has not yet been set.
Regardless, with Garces’ first scheduled race less than 48 hours away, anticipation was noticeably high at Tuesday’s practice.
This week will be the first live action Abraham Gonzalez, a Rams senior, will have had since March 7, 2020, when he and the Rams fell to Santiago in penalty kicks at the Southern California Division III Regional boys soccer championship game.
And despite being away for so long, Gonzalez, a four-year distance runner, expects things to click in a timely manner.
“I’ll be nervous, but I should be used to doing this (after) four years,” he said. “There’s so much in me that just wants to win in every possible way. I just can’t wait to compete against other people.”
It’s that opportunity for competition that has Garcia most excited, hoping it can alleviate some of the pain of the last 11 months.
“It’s definitely something that these kids need as much for their mental health as their physical health,” Garcia, the coach at Wasco, said. “We’re trying to do something for them, anything for them. Our student-athletes, in every single program, have suffered this entire year. They need something right now to hold onto.”