Flu outbreak jeopardizes Ashland-Crater football game

A flu outbreak at Ashland High that caused more than 200 students to miss school Monday could result in the Grizzlies forfeiting their home football game against Crater Friday.

The contest, scheduled for a 7 p.m. kickoff, would be the Southern Sky Conference opener for Ashland.

Of the 218 absent students on Monday, 24 were football players; 21 were out Tuesday, for which a total number of absent students wasn't available.

The team canceled practice both days, and there is no set time for a determination on the fate of the game.

"I would say that there's a very good chance that we're not going to play any football games this week," said Ashland athletic director Karl Kemper, adding that a decision could come as early as today. "We'll monitor it day to day. "¦ We could cancel right up until Crater's bus is scheduled to depart on Friday, if we have to."

Ashland's volleyball team played at Crater Tuesday night. No other school sports teams were scheduled.

Ashland doesn't have an open football date between now and the end of the regular season, and the playoffs begin a week later.

Football coach Charlie Hall, who counted 12 starters among the missing Tuesday, said forfeiting the game isn't in anyone's best interest.

"But," he said, "we have to look at the bigger picture. We're in unprecedented times as far as our health, when you look at the number of people going through hospitals. Sports is a microcosm of society in general. We happen to be impacted at this particular time more severely than other sports programs, I suppose."

If the game isn't played Friday, the chances things will be appreciably better for a Saturday game are slim, said Kemper.

The Oregon School Activities Association limits football players to five quarters per week, so moving the game to Monday, then playing the scheduled games next Friday isn't feasible.

"If we don't have enough kids, we're not going to force it," said Kemper. "We're certainly not going to get in a situation where we're putting a 110-pound sophomore backup on JV out there just to have a game."

Hall agreed.

"You can't play a varsity game with JV personel," he said. "You're going to put kids at risk, personally. And those who come back early, they're at risk, too."

Phoenix High was in a similar health predicament for a nonconference football game Oct. 2 at Sutherlin. The game didn't have a bearing on league standings and was canceled.

Sending out a shell of a squad with little or no preparation to face Crater, the No. 4-ranked Class 5A team in the state, "wouldn't be doing a service to anybody," said Hall.

"We've got a daunting task to keep those guys stopped and we've got to be at our best," he added. "When you start talking about missing over 10 starters, we just don't have that kind of depth where we can drop a guy in there. "¦ We just gotta look at the bigger picture."

Also at issue is the fear of unwittingly spreading the disease, said Kemper.

"We don't have a precedent, we don't have a playbook," he said. "What I do know is, we could not have played a varsity football game tonight. Based on that, we could not have had one tomorrow, either."

Students at Ashland are being asked not to return until they've been flu-free for at least 24 hours.

"If there's 20 (football players) that aren't in school (today) it doesn't look good," Hall said.

Last year, Ashland won at Crater, 14-10, and the two shared the SSC title with Klamath Union. However, the Grizzlies were left out of the postseason because only two teams advanced. A coin flip determined Crater was the No. 1 seed and Klamath Union was No. 2.

Crater has picked up where it left off while Ashland has struggled. Crater is 5-1 overall and 1-0 in conference. Ashland, which began seeing symptoms of the flu in the days following a 24-0 nonconference loss at Bend last Friday, is 2-4.

"We'd love to be able to play the game and get them away from the artificial turf and kind of out of their comfort zone," Hall said of the speed-oriented Comets. "It's one of those rivalries that's great to have, and it's very frustrating to be in the situation we're in."

Crater fought through a flu bug for a couple weeks, said coach John Beck, but illness among the Comets wasn't near the level it is at Ashland.

"We're practicing like we're going to play Friday," said Beck, whose team has a bye next week. "If they decide not to play, we totally understand. You don't want any kids to be sick, whether it's your team or another team. We know a lot of the kids on their team and their coaches, and you don't like to see that. This flu is a scary deal."

The Ashland football team isn't the only sports program at the school to be affected by the flu outbreak. The Ashland boys soccer team was six players short when it lost to Crater on Saturday, and the girls soccer team has gotten used to playing and practicing "two or three players" short over the past few weeks, according to head coach Erik Wolff.

"We had the flu go through our team Monday, Tuesday and Wendesday (of last week)," Ashland boys soccer coach Brad Roupp said, "then we had guys coming back thinking that they could play, but they still were beat. It was definitely a factor."

That outbreak limits the Grizzlies' practice time, too, added Roupp, who cancelled Monday's practice as "six or seven" players continued to deal with symptoms.

"It just comes on," he said. "Kids have come to practice feeling fine, then 45 minutes into it they have to get home now. It's fast and when it comes on they feel terrible."

Tidings sports editor Joe Zavala contributed to this report.

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