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As playoffs start, Kansas City area high school teams face opponents on the field and COVID-19 off

Greg Echlin
The work for a winning season starts long before fall. At one time, avoiding injuries was the challenge most teams faced in their quest for a championship, but during the pandemic, they were haunted by the specter of COVID-19 infections.

On a summer afternoon in late August, Odessa and Lincoln Prep met on the field for a scrimmage match with cheerleaders on the sideline and a crowd in the stands.

The green light is on for all the Missouri high school football playoff teams. For the moment.

As three Kansas City area teams — Odessa, Lee’s Summit North and Rockhurst — found out last year, it could change quickly because of COVID-19 and its Delta variant. All three high school teams were forced to forfeit their playoff games and, as a result, end their respective seasons.

It especially hurt Odessa, undefeated at the time in Class 3 and winners of 24 games in a row. The Bulldogs enter the playoffs this season with only one loss earlier this month against Excelsior Springs.

Greg Echlin
An Odessa High School football booster bought billboard space on I-70 west of Odessa. It says "undefeated" in 2020, but its forfeit in the playoffs actually counted as a loss.

If any team is shut down this year, Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) Executive Director Kerwin Urhahn said he’ll have mixed feelings.

“This may sound strange, but I’m not really concerned about the shutdowns because that’s the right thing to do for their kids,” he said.

Urhahn admitted his level of concern intensified this season because of the number of athletes affected.

“Fourteen-18-year-olds are actually being more symptomatic if they do have the virus,” he said recently. “That’s been a challenge. Last year, basically 14-18-year-olds that would’ve tested positive many times were asymptomatic.”

Kerwin Urhahn of the Missouri State High School Activities Association was a speaker at a recent National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) convention in Orlando.

During a Sept. 17 webinar on the National Federation of High Schools website, the emphasis from the guest panelists was on increasing the vaccination rate.

Scott Brabrand, the school superintendent in Fairfax County, Virginia, called on the high school federation to lead the charge for national mandatory vaccinations among all high school athletes.

“This is a no-brainer,” said Brabrand. “It preserves the instructional integrity of our students and it preserves the athletic integrity of our athletes and our athletic programs.”

Figures released Oct. 26 by the New York Times show that only 48% of those ages 12 years-old and above in Lafayette County, where Odessa is located, have been vaccinated. In Jackson County, it’s 58% for adolescents ages 12 years-old and above. The national average in that age group is 67%.

Urhahn doesn’t foresee required mandatory vaccinations in Missouri. “In the state of Missouri, that would not fly,” he said. “We’ve seen the pushback on simply to wear masks.”

He added that MSHSAA falls in line with state government policies.

“We feel that we’ve done what we can to work with state government to not be out there in front of them doing something that would be contradictory to what they would say or what they’ve been doing,” Urhahn explained.

He encourages Missouri school districts to work with their local health departments, the same directive MSHSAA issued last year.

In the Odessa school district, Superintendent Jon Oetinger said, in an Aug. 25 email to KCUR, if the school district determined that it needed to exceed the guidance of the Lafayette County health department, it will.

Based on Odessa’s finish last year, any football game decided on the field rather than by forfeiture would already exceed last year’s disappointing outcome.

Sports have an economic and social impact on our community and, as a sports reporter, I go beyond the scores and statistics. I also bring the human element to the sports figures who have a hand in shaping the future of not only their respective teams but our town. Reach me at gregechlin@aol.com.
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