Courage, creativity and cohesion are just a few of the qualities necessary for achieving the improbable – elements that have proven conducive to success in some of history’s most unlikely endeavors. During the accumulated months spent troubleshooting the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen these attributes embodied by determined individuals in virtually every capacity across America. And that includes high school sports. Working entirely under the provisions available in their respective states, state association employees, athletic administrators, coaches and student-athletes have shown that conducting and participating in a fall sports season – or some form of one – is not only possible, but sustainable.
By this point, it is widely known that the effects of the virus and the threat of its spread vary drastically from region to region, and that decisions to play or postpone were weighed differently based on the unique factors in each state. It is certainly easy to sympathize with those in California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Virginia and the District of Columbia, where fall competition across all high school sports programs has been prohibited. Outside of those six, 11 states have postponed their football seasons, nine have moved volleyball to the spring, and five will not play boys and/or girls soccer in their traditional fall seasons.
On the optimistic side, however, 14 states – Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming – have been able to provide all of their fall offerings without any scheduling delays. Excluding those states, 17 more are having some type of fall season – with standard or adjusted schedules – for each of their sponsored sports, creating a spectrum for delays that ranges from a couple of weeks to multiple months. The sum of those two numbers may be the most positive aspect of the fall campaign thus far, as it means student-athletes in 31 states have had opportunities to participate in ALL of their typical fall sports options.
Once cleared to move forward, state associations got to work creating protocols and making significant alterations to sport schedules and playoff formats in order to cram a season into an abbreviated window.
Such was the case with football, where most states cut at least a couple of weeks off of their typical nine-, 10- or 11-game slates. This group included Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and South Carolina, which were among those that opted to play six- or seven-game regular seasons. To counteract these reductions, a number of state associations removed qualification requirements for the postseason, allowing access to any school with the desire to participate.
In Ohio, a state rich in football tradition, it’s the first time an open playoff format has ever been employed. This year, 648 schools will compete for the chance to be Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) state champions, as compared to 224 in a normal year. The playoffs will also be held earlier, with schools then allowed to schedule additional regular-season games after being eliminated. The first round of the playoffs began October 9-10 in The Buckeye State, with ousted teams now having until November 14 to complete their 10-game regular seasons.
“To both ensure we can offer students the opportunity to participate in education-based athletics but do so with their best interests in mind, we believe this modified plan offers a positive solution by addressing many of the concerns of our member schools,” said Jeff Cassella, president of the OHSAA Board of Directors and athletic administrator at Mentor High School. “Those that are able to start their seasons on time will be able to do so. Those that are starting later can still have a season. Add in the option of all schools entering the playoffs and the possibility of schools still being able to play 10 regular-season contests, and this plan is helpful to virtually all of our schools.”
Significant modifications were instituted for soccer as well. For instance, in Kentucky, boys and girls soccer consisted of 14 contests, and the start of the postseason was moved to October 12. The first three rounds of the tournament were then completed in the following two weeks, which allowed the state’s normal postseason schedule to occur after that.
Even though the obvious primary objective is providing the opportunity to play, the Ohio and Kentucky associations represent only a tiny fraction of a secondary nationwide commitment – concluding sports seasons with some form of championship or “culminating event” at the state or regional level. As of the time of this article, every state is either allowing or planning to host postseason competitions for each of its available fall sports.
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association added a lengthy list of safety protocols for soccer. Among them is a mandatory two-minute break in the action scheduled for the first dead ball situation after the 20-minute mark. The break was designed not only for hydration, but to give participants, coaches and officials a short period of relief from wearing masks. Goalkeepers are also prohibited from spitting on their gloves, a method commonly used for gaining a better grip on the ball.
Unique protocols were also developed for volleyball, including the suspension of teams switching benches between sets and using a rotation of balls that are sanitized after being removed from play.
At least one school in New Hampshire – a state with several small schools that have limited space in their athletic facilities – has reconfigured its benches to create enough room for proper social distancing, forcing officials and game management personnel to adapt to new channels of communication.
John Stark Regional High School in Weare, New Hampshire only has bleachers on one side of its gymnasium and lacks the area to accommodate multiple rows for team benches along the opposite wall. To comply with the guidelines, the benches were moved across to the bottom rows of the stands, prompting the tower and floor officials to switch sides as well; however, due to electronic constraints, the scorekeeper, scoreboard operator and libero tracker were kept in their original positions, creating obstacles for recording statistics and substitutions (see photo on previous pages).
“What we did was, whenever there was a substitution, I turned around to ensure that the (scorer’s) table had it because they didn’t have a good view either,” said Donna Plumb, an assistant director of operations at the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association who also works as an official. “It worked out well, but I suggested afterward that the libero tracker and scorekeeper also be moved to the other side to make it easier on the floor official.”
Plumb said more schools with similar spatial issues are entertaining the idea of adjusting equipment and support staff placement and added that two New Hampshire schools are utilizing the same mitigation solution pioneered by their neighbors in Vermont – playing in the elements outdoors.
Notable changes made for cross country include using staggered starting lines and two different locations for race start and race finish. In field hockey, which is being played in 14 of 16 sponsoring states, modifications include eliminating pregame stick inspection and preparing extra game balls in a designated area rather than utilizing ball boys/ball girls.
All over the country, individual schools and student-athletes have gone to extraordinary lengths to navigate the circumstances and have produced countless highlights in the process.
In early September, Goodland (Kansas) High School (GHS) was responsible for a truly uplifting story of leadership. Just days before their first football game of the season against Liberal High School, the entire Goodland coaching staff was forced into quarantine due to positive COVID-19 tests.
Recognizing that the players needed adults to step up and lead the team, Bill Biermann, superintendent of Goodland Schools; Marty Lehman, GHS athletic director; and one of the coaches’ wives rose to the occasion.
“Coach Wiegers’ wife was our signal caller,” Biermann said. “She practiced the signals all week. She kept telling me to settle down and stay in one spot because she was having a hard time staying where I was at during the game a little bit.”
With very little time for the players to get acquainted with their replacement coaches, one might have expected Goodland – a Class 3A school – to meet an unfavorable outcome at the hands of Class 5A Liberal. Astonishingly, the Goodland Cowboys rallied around their interim leaders to put together an inspired performance and defeat Liberal, 43-32.
Cardboard cutouts have become a common sight for fans watching televised sporting events in the age of COVID-19. The volleyball team at Concordia Academy in Roseville, Minnesota came up with a creative twist on the idea to raise money for an alumni family in need.
The team established the Beacon Cardboard Crew, an initiative that allows supporters to purchase cutouts of themselves to be placed in the stands at Concordia home matches. The proceeds go to the family of four-year-old Olivia Beekman, who has undergone five rounds of chemotherapy over the past year-and-a-half to treat neuroblastoma.
“We are overwhelmed with gratitude,” said Grace Beekman, Olivia’s mother.
The Cardboard Crew has become increasingly popular and has since grown to exceed 100 members.
“I think it really shows the character of our school and how far everyone will go to support members within the school and people who have been here before,” said Kira Fallert, a senior on the Concordia volleyball team.
Jerome Singleton, executive director of the South Carolina High School League (SCHSL), and legendary Alabama high school football coach Buddy Anderson were among the key figures in education- based athletics who contracted – and beat – COVID-19.
Singleton, whose story was told in greater detail in the October issue of High School Today, returned to the helm of the SCHSL after a battle with the virus that forced him to use a ventilator and challenged his physical, mental and emotional fortitude.
“When I got out, I had to still be quarantined for 14 days at home,” Singleton said. “In those 14 days, I realized that there was no cure. My best opportunity with this was to get as healthy as I could. … I got to where I felt a little better and I started exercising every day. That’s the new me.”
Prior to coming into contact with the virus, Anderson, Alabama’s all-time leader in football coaching wins at any level and a 2018 National High School Hall of Fame inductee, announced the 2020 football season – his 43rd as the head coach at Vestavia Hills High School – would be his last.
That farewell campaign was in serious jeopardy when the 70-year-old fell ill in August, but he was fortunate to rid himself of the sickness in time for Vestavia Hills’ season-opener on September 4.
“There were a few bad days in there – a lot of nausea, which is one of the symptoms – but after that, I started feeling a little bit better each day,” Anderson said. “This virus is invisible, and we don’t know where it came from or how we first got it – but it happens.”
We would probably rather not admit it, but at one point or another, most of us had considerable doubts about the likelihood that high school sports would be played this fall. Leaders in education- based athletics certainly were not immune to these same thoughts, but through it all, their dedication to the cause never ceased. Their body of work, and the inspirational anecdotes that have resulted from around the country, stand as evidence that the mission to return to play has been accomplished.
Nate Perry is coordinator of media relations at the National Federation of State High School Associations.