The sights and sounds of football are back. Coach’s whistles were blowing, orders were being barked, players were shaking off the offseason rust, and some were feeding the birds.
While official practices have yet to start for high schools around the state — they begin next Monday — conditioning and early installations were in full swing starting Monday at the Mazama and Triad football fields.
One aspect that’s been a regular occurrence the past couple of years, however, was missing: smoke.
Not that anyone is complaining.
“It’s great, it’s beautiful out here,” said Mazama head football coach Vic Lease.
“We can actually see Hogback (Mountain),” said Triad head coach Mike Homfeldt.
Quite a different feel this year than the same time in 2018 when several nearby forest fires damaged the air quality on the Klamath Basin.
The air quality a year ago kept the Ella Redkey Pool from holding regular business hours for several weeks. Kristina Buckley, the public information administrator for the city of Klamath Falls, said in 2018 that the August air quality had “definitely been the worst for the longest period of time.”
For much of August in 2018, the air quality index exceeded triple digits, often reaching an index of 151 or higher which is deemed “unhealthy.” Pre-season jamborees were relocated and contests were cancelled.
Monday’s air index in the afternoon was 18 as of press time.
The haze that blanketed the Klamath Basin just as the high school sports season was kicking off left teams having to get creative with their allotted practice time — mainly, moving indoors for practice.
For a sport like football that is played on a 100-yard field with 22 players --16 in Triad’s case — on the field at a time, getting the live reps and the necessary conditioning needed for games in a cafeteria or gym is nearly impossible. Which left teams behind the sticks come game time.
“We maybe had three days outside in the first three weeks,” Homfeldt said. “It was pretty pathetic, and it showed in early games. The conditioning, timing, just everything was off. It took us half a season to get in shape it felt like, just to start clicking.”
The five-time defending Skyline Conference champion, Mazama, isn’t accustomed to dropping early season games, or any game for that matter. Prior to last season, the Vikings had gone 10-2 in non-league games played before October.
Last year Mazama suffered its worst loss in a non-league game since Lease took over the program, losing by 21 points to Del Norte (Calif.). When the two teams played, Del Norte had already played three games — Mazama had played one while another one was cancelled.
“We got our butts beat,” Lease said. “It was horrible, it greatly affected us. We were not as far along as we should’ve been at that point and it really showed against Del Norte, they really took it to us.”
Being on the field this early should only help the local teams once the season kicks off in a few short weeks.
“It gives up more of an opportunity to get better on the field since we don’t have to be stuck in the cafeteria doing walk-throughs,” said Triad junior Micah Young. “You get way better conditioning out here.”
While the air quality is safe for now, that could quickly change. The Mazama coaching staff is well equipped to monitor any change with potential forest fires. Freshman assistant Ed Saunders is a firefighter and assistant coach Brandon Wood is a forest service manager for a logging company.
“My coaches keep a pretty close eye on it.” Lease said.
For now, the teams are taking advantage of clear sky and clean air.
“It’s tough,” Homfeldt said. “You can do all the two-hand touch and tackling without running, but there is no substitute for being out on the field. It’s a real blessing to be out and run around this week.”