During the months-long shutdown of high school sports, area athletic administrators have been saying they only needed a chance to show the state decision-makers that sports could be held safely. 

They've been given that chance. Now, they say, they're making the most of it, holding up an often overlooked sport as a potential catalyst that will bring on the return of other sports.

Cross country is the only high school sport that is allowed in the area amid the coronavirus pandemic, though others are likely on the way.

On Feb. 5, the return to competition began with a pair of cross country races at Santa Maria High.

Santa Maria High athletic director Brian Wallace scanned temperatures and ensured those in attendance were wearing face coverings. The only people allowed on campus were athletes, coaches and media members.

Spectators cheered on the competitors behind the chain-link fence that surrounds the football stadium. Similar precautions were taken at a similar race at Righetti High the following morning.

On Friday, Pioneer Valley closed off its campus to the public, allowing cross country runners to complete a course that looped around the school grounds. 

The races all featured a 'waterfall' start to ensure some form of social distancing, at least at the start of the race. Some athletes wear face masks during their races, others strap theirs around their wrists and elbows or tuck them in their waistbands. 

Coaches and student volunteers tell the runners to put their masks on after the race is complete and separate the competitors near the finish line. 

Coaches are hailing the serendipitous situation, saying cross country athletes are the perfect students to set the tone in a return to competition they hope grows. 

"Cross country runners are such disciplined kids in general, because you have to have discipline to run that long and that consistently," Righetti coach Megan Cota said. "They're really good at following rules and understanding the little sacrifices in order to be able to do this. You can do it, you can modify and run eight laps around a track. It's also getting other kids out because their sport isn't happening."

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"I think we've showed that you can do it safely," said Dave Yamate, Santa Maria High's girls cross country coach. "With cross country, it's outdoors, there's no contact and we've really been strict with the kids on the guidelines, with the masks and social distancing."

Santa Ynez athletic director Ashley Coelho said last week, "I really think it's awesome that cross country is the 'spotlight' sport. It's a sport that nobody ever expected to be in the spotlight. But cross country will set the example and lead by example." 

The spotlight landing on these cross country runners also seems fitting, coaches say. They've been preparing for a potential season for months. Many runners were hoping to run last fall after their track seasons were cut short at the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. 

Runners in the area started training full-time in September when conditioning workouts were permitted.

"For the past five months or so we've been doing cross country training, so it's all added up to this," said Righetti senior Aidan McAllister.

Though, with ever-changing guidelines and rules, the coaches and competitors aren't sure what the future holds, though optimism hasn't certainly grown in leaps and bounds over the last month. 

"It's just awesome seeing the kids competing," Yamate added. "We've been talking about how important is to see high school sports return, it felt like Christmas Day. It's been a long haul for these runners, we've been going since September and getting out here and seeing the improvement is great.

"We haven't had any kids come down with COVID since we've been going at it. I really want to see this senior class have some type of season. It'd be great to have something and I think the kids would take a shortened season over no season at all."

Next up are girls tennis and golf, other sports that should be able to adapt and thrive amid the pandemic. After that, there could be baseball and softball games in March. Beyond that no one is quite sure what the future holds for some of the more traditional high school sports like basketball and football, which face greatly different challenges as high-contact sports.

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