South Medford's Eloy Saucedo (8) works against pressure from Hidden Valley's Jake Saunders (2). (Photo by Tom Lavine)
South Medford's Eloy Saucedo (8) works against pressure from Hidden Valley's Jake Saunders (2). (Photo by Tom Lavine)

What started out as an idea for glorified pick-up games morphed into the next-best thing to an official season for several high school boys soccer teams in southern Oregon this fall.

When coaches Claudio Villa of South Medford and Chris Gallegos of Phoenix met to discuss fall plans for their teams, they were looking for little more than informal competition.

They managed to get enough schools on board, though, for each team to schedule eight games under the lights at empty high school stadiums, with certified officials. Play concludes this week.

“The whole set-up was to kind of get together and scrimmage,” Gallegos said. “It wasn't even really going to be legit-type games. I didn't even care if we had refs show up. And then the athletic directors got involved, which was great. Things just really seemed to fall in place at the right time.”

Joining South Medford and Phoenix were Crater, Hidden Valley, Cascade Christian, North Medford, Eagle Point and Grants Pass, which had two teams.

“We were lucky to be able to play for close to two months,” Villa said. “We got a chance as coaches to see what we have, and if we have a season, we're going to have a better picture of what we're going to be doing with our players.”

Villa and Gallegos considered running teams through local soccer clubs, but quickly realized that registration fees would have been a roadblock for many players.

“Especially with this pandemic, coming up with $360, it came down to food on the table,” Villa said. “You have kids who said, 'Coach, I can't play because I don't have the money.' That's when we kind of said, 'Hey, why can't we just use our facilities at the high school, as long as they allow us? We can be the referees. It doesn't have to be anything official.'”

Villa said he and Gallegos “started brainstorming” and got other area high school coaches to join them in planning matches. Word reached the athletic directors, who used district funds to pay for officials.

“It ended up being pretty much an official season, except it wasn't official,” Villa said.

Aside from the lack of fans, the biggest difference from a regular high school season was competing in masks.

“It wasn't easy at first,” Villa said. “We hit some road bumps here and there. Of course, you have some players that didn't want to wear a mask, or they couldn't wear a mask. It's probably not the most appropriate way to play, but you either play with a mask, or you don't play at all. You just can't ignore the guidelines.”

For the players at Phoenix, a community ravaged by September wildfires, the matches were just what they needed. The 4A Pirates have excelled against teams from mostly larger schools, going 4-0-3 with one game remaining.

“Being able to keep in contact with the boys when they were displaced, being able to reach out and help them, and on top of that, having somewhere for them to go to get a release, and be able to play some games, I can't even explain it to you,” said Gallegos, who has taken over as coach this year. “It was great.”

The season also provided some much-needed clarity for South Medford, which is retooling after graduating all but three players from last season.

“We're really young, and the last thing I wanted to do is start the official season in February not knowing my kids at all,” Villa said. “I'm looking for 15 new players.”

With the future uncertain, South Medford's three senior captains savored the opportunity to play. Villa recalled how the seniors addressed their teammates at halftime as they struggled against Crater two weeks ago.

“They made a comment to the rest of the team, 'You guys are freshmen and sophomores, but we're seniors, and we have a chance to play today, so let's make the best out of it. We don't know, this might be our last game,'” said Villa, whose team finished with a 4-1-3 record, losing only to Phoenix.