Two of the biggest stars in all of Colorado high school football won’t take the field for the Durango Demons in the regular-season finale Friday night.
Durango High School senior quarterback Jordan Woolverton and senior wide receiver Ben Finneseth were placed in a retroactive quarantine by Durango School District 9-R dating back to a close contact exposure to an athletic trainer who later tested positive for COVID-19. The date of the exposure was Nov. 5. Durango 9-R will not let Finneseth and Woolverton participate on the football team again until Nov. 19, the week of the state quarterfinals.
That means Finneseth and Woolverton will not be allowed to play when the third-ranked Demons host No. 10 Cañon City at 6 p.m. Friday with at least a share of the Class 3A South Central League championship on the line.
“We are shocked,” Woolverton said. “There are a lot of emotions going through my head. I’m upset. I almost feel in this situation like I let the team down because I can’t be out there in a league championship game and a game to secure a spot in the playoffs. In a short season like this, you must win every game. There’s a lot of emotions going on, and it’s very hard.”
DHS is 4-0 this season and has been led by Finneseth and Woolverton. Finneseth has 194 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 20 carries to go with 153 receiving yards and two more scores through the air. Woolverton has passed for 629 yards, six touchdowns and only one interception while he has completed 63% of his passes. He also has run for 169 yards and five more touchdowns. They are also both key defensive backs who have combined for 29 tackles, while Woolverton leads the team with three interceptions.
The only chance Finneseth and Woolverton have of playing Friday night is if a second COVID-19 test given to the athletic trainer comes back negative. But there is no timetable for when the result of a second test might come.
Durango 9-R contracts athletic trainers from Mercy Sports Medicine for each sports season. Those trainers come from off campus to attend games and practices.
Woolverton, who had a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder, visited the trainer before practice Nov. 5 to get three pieces of tape put on his shoulder before practice. Finneseth also had one of his thumbs taped, and two freshmen players also had contact with the trainer on Nov. 5.
“We both had masks on and were outside,” Finneseth said. “It was probably less than 30 seconds. They say to have close contact it has to be for 15 minutes. But this is just how they’re operating with their rules and guidelines. It’s frustrating we didn’t know this person could be positive beforehand. But there’s nothing we can do about it. We have to accept the facts.”
While the trainer and players were wearing masks, an investigation conducted by Durango 9-R and San Juan Basin Public Health revealed the trainer was not wearing gloves. Because of that, the players’ interaction with the trainer has been deemed “close contact” by the school district and SJBPH, which consulted with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“Through contact tracing interviews, the individual who was positive with COVID did not wear gloves for evaluations or treatments for the students,” Durango 9-R Executive of Student Support Services Vanessa Giddings wrote in an email to parents of the exposed athletes. “Therefore, this does constitute a close contact and the students are required to quarantine.”
Finneseth and Woolverton played last Saturday in a win at Pueblo East. No players from Durango or Pueblo East have tested positive for COVID-19. The district said it found out Tuesday about the contact with the trainer and immediately placed the four players into quarantine but did not feel any need to quarantine any other players.
The players were not given any option to test out of quarantine through negative tests. The school district has issued a blanket policy regarding any student with close contact, and Giddings told the athletes’ parents that no case by case consideration would be given to any student. That stance was backed up by 9-R administrators on Thursday.
“Even if you go in and test negative, it is required by the health department to finish the 14-day quarantine,” 9-R spokeswoman Julie Popp said. “If they test negative, that’s great, but they still have to quarantine for that entire 14 days because symptoms could come after a negative test comes in. So, the 14-day window allows for the virus to run its course if anybody had, in fact, contracted it. That’s what they’ve advised us as guidelines.”
Durango 9-R athletic director Ryan Knorr said there was an attempt to appeal the close contact but SJBPH had conducted an investigation and ruled it was enough to constitute close contact. Had the trainer worn gloves, the players would not have had to quarantine.
The school district has strictly enforced guidelines from SJBPH, though the guidelines from the health department have not been enforced as law by other businesses in the community.
Not being able to prove their health with a negative test was disappointing for the players, who have watched as NFL teams have allowed players to return within five days of a close contact if they repeatedly test negative.
“You go downtown and see all these people not following the rules, but restaurants and stores are still open,” Woolverton said. “Ben and I, we were outdoors, masks on over our nose correctly. Less than one minute, and now we don’t get to play. Our football team has taken every precaution, done everything right, and now this one little thing can boot us. I know I’m not sick. Ben knows he’s not sick. We both know we could be out there playing with our guys. The health people are making the rules, so there’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t break the rules and go out there. We will continue to keep doing everything right.”
A request for comment from Kolin Tomlinson, the Supervisor of Athletic Training at Mercy Regional Medical Center, was not returned by press time Thursday.
Mercy athletic trainers also work with students at neighboring school districts as well as Fort Lewis College. It is not immediately known if the trainer who tested positive had contact with any athletes at Fort Lewis College who are also in quarantine. The FLC women’s basketball team is in a 14-day quarantine, and the football program has had four confirmed positive cases of coronavirus.
Knorr said there is no consideration to change athletic training practices within the district at this time.
Families were upset with how long it took to get answers from the district regarding the quarantine.
“As a parent, I would be more understanding if I just had one government agency or medical facility raise their hand and just take responsibility and say, ‘We didn’t do this part real well and it’s going to affect your son and that one is on us,’” said Finneseth’s father, Robert, who is the head wrestling coach at DHS. “Basically, the state came back and said they’re going to push it back on the trainers and say the trainers were supposed to be wearing gloves. We know how this circle is going to go around. The trainers are going to say wearing gloves wasn’t a policy they knew of.
“What we don’t understand as parents is that if hand sanitizer is what everyone is pushing and it’s in every classroom, every corner, if that’s not good enough for this case, then why are we doing it? ... The simple fact is this trainer, as far as what we’ve been told, has absolutely no symptoms but yet my son and (Woolverton) are the ones being punished out of this whole situation. And nobody wants to take responsibility.”
The news came as a shock to the entire football team. With strict guidelines in place once a fall season was approved in Colorado, the Demons went above and beyond the guidelines laid out by the Colorado High School Activities Association in regards to health protocols. To have those efforts spoiled the last week of the season and not because of someone directly affiliated with the team was a source of disappointment.
“It’s super difficult. Our kids really took it upon themselves to make sure that they were doing all the little things right after every practice and every game,” DHS head coach David Vogt said. “The kids were always telling each other, ‘Hey, make sure you go straight home. Don’t be around other people. Do all the little things right. Wear your mask in school.’ They were constantly policing each other. It’s been so important to these kids, and they’ve taken it very seriously.”
Finneseth and Woolverton have spent the week at home. They have continued to watch game film, work out in their garages and prepare mentally as though they might get a chance to play if the trainer’s second test comes back negative. But, as the days have gone by, they have begun to lose hope of playing their final regular-season home game in high school.
In a season reduced to only six games, and for DHS only five after its Week 1 opponent Pueblo South canceled because of its own COVID-19 case, the loss of a game is also important to Finneseth and Woolverton as they chase college scholarships. Both have walk-on offers at the University of Colorado but aimed to earn scholarships at a major Division I school through their play senior year.
“My future is riding on some of these games,” Ben Finneseth said. “Making a film at the end of the year and only playing four games, that’s not a whole lot of time to show my skill set. Missing this whole games means less film to show coaches, and that is going to affect my future a lot.”
Both seniors have played through various injuries over the years and have given their all for Durango and its football team. Now, all they can do is sit back and watch the game on a live stream from their bedrooms on Friday night.
“It feels helpless,” Woolverton said.
If Durango wins Friday, it will host a state quarterfinal game next week. A loss would send the Demons on the road or potentially leave DHS out of the playoffs entirely.
“It’s sad for us, but we trust our other guys to pull us through,” Ben Finneseth said. “As of right now, we will be back for the playoffs, so that is good. Sitting at home, we feel like wounded ducks. You never know when an opportunity might be ripped from you. When we get the chance to play again, we will be ready and back better than ever.”