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Almost Home: A Look at 2020-21 Winter and Spring Sports

By Nate Perry on May 10, 2021 hst Print

Reflecting on the culmination of the traditional fall sports season, Steve Savarese, executive director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, was near-perfect in describing the mindset of state association cohorts throughout the country.

“There is no rest,” he said, looking ahead. “To use an athletics analogy, we’re satisfied because we feel like we won this ‘game,’ but we know we have more ‘games’ right around the corner. That’s our thought process.”

Whether it was intentional or not, Savarese’s summary accurately depicted the coronavirus as an opponent that required a solid game plan and a team effort to be defeated. And further parallels could be drawn to the numerous ‘in-game’ adjustments many associations had to make to achieve ‘victory’ in the fall. The ‘games around the corner’ – the winter and spring sports seasons – would bring new challenges that varied from state to state, such as virus mitigation in indoor facilities, working around state guidance and the mad scramble to complete any postponed activities before year’s end.

Of course, the imperfection lies in the fact that not all associations were able to conduct fall sports in their designated season, birthing condensed sports calendars like those in California, Oregon and Washington that shoehorn an entire athletics slate into roughly five months.

With the exception of that West Coast trio and a few other states playing later into the month of June than normal, the finish line for the 2020-21 athletic year – undoubtedly the most taxing race any association has ever run – is in sight. And though the obstacles have differed slightly with each season, the commitment to overcoming them has remained as strong as ever.

Winter sports officially kicked off October 19 when the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA) allowed schools that had opted out of the AAA football season to begin playing basketball games. Thirteen more states tipped off in November followed by 10 more in December, including five – Massachusetts, North Dakota, Virginia, Wisconsin and Utah – that had seasons slightly pushed back. More significant delays dictated start dates from there, with 15 states launching campaigns in January, four in February and three in March.

In total, 46 state associations have played boys and girls basketball so far this year, with the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) and the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) tentatively getting underway May 3 and May 17, respectively. And when the New Mexico and West Virginia associations conclude their basketball state championships on May 8, it will mean 45 of those 46 successfully completed their seasons. (The California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) basketball seasons are also in progress and are scheduled to conclude June 19.)

“There was never a doubt whether we were going to be able to move forward,” said Paul Neidig, commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA). “It was always, ‘let’s figure out how.’ And in the grand scheme of things, that’s what teams do. It was ‘Team Indiana,’ and everybody had a part in it – from administrators and coaches and athletic trainers to the bus drivers and the people who serve the cafeteria food, to the moms and dads, the grandparents, the teachers, all the way up to the governor’s office. Everybody was involved, but the goal was always the same.”

The IHSAA began contests on the hardwood November 23 and became one of 35 associations to host state championships when teams cut down the nets in Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse February 26-27 (girls) and April 3 (boys). Watching teams hoist state tournament trophies were monumental moments this year in the Hoosier State – where basketball is king – especially considering last year’s tournament was a casualty of the pandemic.

“This year was the 111th time that we’ve done this,” said Neidig of the basketball championships. “And (last year) was the first time in the history of those 111 years that we didn’t complete a tournament. The celebration of being an Indiana high school basketball champion – there’s never been a question of how important it is. But, I think this year, people really understood what it was like not to have this tournament, and I think it really hit home.”

In any other year, the month of May would be not synonymous with basketball outside of the National Basketball Association playoffs, but this year, the hope is that it will be high school hoopsters’ time to shine in Oregon and Washington.

As a result of the fall surge in COVID cases and subsequent collaboration with their respective boards of directors and state officials, both the OSAA and the WIAA designed truncated three-season calendars bookended by winter sports rather than spring provisions. Both states’ plans offer roughly 70 percent of each sport’s regular-season contests played in a normal year, and though the shuffling of the winter and spring seasons is certainly peculiar, it has several strategic advantages.

“Winter sports are mostly high-contact sports – cheer, dance, basketball, wrestling – and they also typically involve the least number of kids,” said Mick Hoffman, WIAA executive director. “So, the thinking was, ‘let’s get spring sports started’ because based on our conversations with the state, we knew we were going to be able to do those – even if we were still in a surge or a spike – because they’re outdoors and there are ways to mitigate. Then, if for some reason we’re not able to get winter sports started, we can just simply expand the spring season.”

Just like other states that are larger in area, Oregon and Washington both feature wide spectrums in terms of population density – and thus, county COVID metrics – and seasonal weather conditions, which prompted conferences and schools to divert from the state-provided structure and submit alternative season dates.

With the availability of activity programs tied to schools’ learning formats during the fall, several smaller schools in eastern Oregon were able to conduct their fall sports as scheduled. The OSAA referred to that period – August 31 to February 21 – as “Season 1,” with its three designated activities seasons called Seasons 2, 3 and 4. Season 1 allowed schools total flexibility to complete whatever activities they could under county health guidelines. OSAA Executive Director Peter Weber said one group of schools set up a round-robin indoor volleyball tournament while others played a few soccer games. Some schools in areas where protocols were a little tighter even erected their volleyball nets on the football field in an effort to give kids opportunities.

The shuffling of schedules rose to another level in Washington, which allowed movement to take place on an individual league basis. Hoffman pointed out that the WIAA calendar as written wasn’t an ideal fit in every part of the state (e.g., running cross country in February with one foot of snow on the ground). He reported he received modified schedule requests from 27 of the 45 leagues in the state featuring everything from one- and two-week start date adjustments to the complete rearranging of fall, winter and spring seasons.

“They all made sense for those leagues,” he said of the schedule proposals. “And we’re not going to have culminating events with the stringent guidelines we’re under for travel, so we passed them all.”

Oregon has been plagued by similar travel restrictions to its neighbor to the north, which prompted the OSAA Executive Board to alter the association’s policy on interleague competition.

“In a lot of cases (playing within a league) makes sense because leagues are designed to be local, but because of the size of our state and our classification system, we have some leagues that are spread out over big distances,” Weber said. “And rather than putting kids on buses and traveling several hours to go to a contest in order to play another 2A school or a 3A school, it makes more sense in this time of the pandemic for them to drive down the street and play a 4A school. We’ve seen some matchups that we’ve never seen before.”

One of those matchups took place on the gridiron in early April, when Canby High School took on Wilsonville High School – schools separated by just eight miles and a 15-minute drive – for the very first time. Canby moved from the 6A Three Rivers League to Wilsonville’s 5A Northwest Oregon Conference this season to set the stage for the backyard showdown, which saw Wilsonville take bragging rights, 37-14. Though it is uncertain what next year has in store, both teams left excited at the prospects of a new rivalry moving forward.

“It’s something Canby’s never really had,” Canby coach Jimmy Joyce said in an interview with OSAAtoday. “This is a chance for us to establish something right across the river. A lot of these kids know each other and grew up together. It could be the start of a great rivalry in the state of Oregon.”

The CIF opted to assemble a two-season format that accommodated longer sport schedules but featured more overlap. The state schedule for Season 1, which included competitive cheer, cross country, field hockey, football, gymnastics, skiing/snowboarding, girls volleyball and water polo, ran from late-January to April. Season 2, consisting of badminton, baseball, basketball, competitive sport cheer, golf, lacrosse, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, boys volleyball and wrestling, began in March and will finish in June.

While the overlap has unfortunately caused many students to have to choose between sports, CIF Executive Director Ron Nocetti says schools have done a terrific job relaxing their participation policies to provide kids as many opportunities as possible.

“I’m incredibly appreciative of our member schools and the flexibility schools and coaches have shown to allow students to play more than one sport,” said Nocetti. “Normally, many schools wouldn’t allow kids to be on two teams at the same time just because of commitment issues, but I think schools are going above and beyond to make that happen for students, and that’s been great to see.”

A recent announcement enabling statewide competition has brought an even brighter outlook to the point Nocetti said almost all CIF sections are now conducting their full complement of outdoor offerings, including football.

Loosened travel protocols also opened the possibility that the CIF could hold state championship events, but Nocetti said that discussion cannot begin until the sections declare their own intentions.

Wrestling, a particularly troublesome undertaking coming into the pandemic, saw more substantial delays than basketball in several areas of the country. Eliminating large multi-school tournaments has proved to be a simple and effective mitigation strategy, but the physical nature of the sport – almost constant contact between participants – does not provide much leeway for significant alterations.

These safety concerns have led some states and schools to get creative. Associations in Illinois, North Carolina and Rhode Island moved wrestling into a special “summer season” (all three recently kicked off April 26), while wrestling on football fields and in other outdoor settings has been explored by schools in New Jersey and Oregon.

Despite the uncertainties, Neidig had believed from the beginning that wrestling’s individual weight classes and matchups would make it one of the easier sports to monitor in terms of contact tracing.

“I’m not an expert on wrestling, but the thing that I understood was that if you go wrestle on a Saturday, and you wrestle three different people in the 185-pound weight class, you know where your contact was as long as the school is doing it right and keeping athletes separated and within pods,” Neidig said. “When you go into a basketball game, you have five-on-five, and ultimately, you may have 10 players get into the game on both teams and there is heavy contact among multiple people.”

Neidig’s theory played out to be largely accurate, as 35 of the 49 associations that offer wrestling have already completed their seasons, and three others – Alaska, California and New Mexico – are right around the midway point. Four of those 49 decided against a season altogether, and of the 45 total states that plan to hold a wrestling season, more than half started after the new year.

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA), which saw one of its 11 federated sections achieve a perfect wrestling season with zero teams entering quarantine, joined the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association as the only two NFHS member organizations that did not conclude their wrestling seasons with a state final. Other state associations opted not to contest either the individual or dual team portions of their tournaments, but in the end, state champions of some variety have been crowned in 33 states.

The NYSPHSAA is also one of 15 associations – mostly in the Northeast and upper Midwest – that sanction ice hockey as a winter sport. All 15 of those organizations held hockey seasons this year, with 10 of them ending with state championships.

Much like wrestling, ice hockey garnered plenty of national attention as a sport that would be particularly difficult to conduct in the pandemic. And in many cases, virus outbreak information that was collected at various levels – not just high school – was used to scrutinize the safety of the sport as a whole. The 15-for-15 season completion mark posted by these associations stands as strong evidence hockey can be played with proper adherence to protocols.

“I think there was a clear separation between high school ice hockey and youth hockey,” said Dr. Robert Zayas, executive director of the NYSPHSAA. “What I’ve been really trying to stress when I talk to our membership and to the media is, ‘don’t lump (interscholastic) in with club or youth.’ What we were doing in high school is not what a lot of these clubs or youth teams were doing. We were taking the guidance and we were following it as it was provided.”

A COVID mishap that knocked out the entire Detroit Catholic Central (DCC) varsity hockey team during the playoffs ended up producing a truly magical moment for the program.

Just before the playoffs began, a player from DCC – a perennial powerhouse in the Michigan High School Athletic Association – sustained a positive COVID test. At the time, it was required the entire team be quarantined and retested later in the week to be eligible to play in its regional playoff game against Berkley High School.

Nine hours before puck drop, it was determined the varsity team was not eligible to play, leaving DCC head coach Brandon Kaleniecki and athletic director Aaron Babicz no choice but to rely on the junior varsity to keep the season alive.

Inspired by their sidelined upperclassmen, not only did Catholic Central’s JVs score seven goals in a victory over Berkley, they knocked off Troy High School two days later for the regional title. The varsity team returned for the next game and won three in a row en route to claiming the MHSAA Division I Ice Hockey state championship with a 5-1 win over Rockford High School on March 27.

Illinois and New York headline a group of states that fall somewhere in between the California-Oregon-Washington all-in-one spring calendar and states like Alabama, Indiana and Mississippi that played all their sports in their regularly scheduled seasons.

This collection, which also includes associations in Maryland, North Carolina and other states, was able to administer lower-risk sports like cross country and golf in their normal windows. Higher- risk sports, however, had to be handled more cautiously based on state guidance, which has produced springtime oddities such as uniformed wrestlers, basketball and volleyball players all scrambling for gym time and football games that actually matter.

All things considered, including the fact that four of the NYSPHSAA’s 11 geographic sections chose not to participate in any athletic programs until January, Zayas feels the state’s resumption of higher-risk activities has gone very well.

“We’ve had wrestling, we’ve had football, we’re playing basketball, and we’re done with our ice hockey season,” Zayas said. “We were able to preserve the season for every single student-athlete in the state of New York, which I consider to be an incredible accomplishment. And I think it’s a testament to students, coaches, officials, administrators really focusing on the risk minimization efforts, social distancing and wearing masks.”

Due to regional travel restrictions, various sections moving seasons to different parts of the school year and an overall preference to maximize participation opportunities for all students, the NYSPHSAA didn’t offer state championships or culminating events for any of its sports this year, but Zayas said the association is already looking forward to reincorporating that element for next year.

“We’re already gearing up for the fall season,” he said. “With our state championship events, those are things that we’re looking at as being a great chance to get back to some sense of normalcy. And we want to provide that opportunity for kids to contend for a state championship.”

The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) just wrapped up its football and volleyball seasons on April 24 without state tournaments, or State Series, as the association refers to it. And if the IHSA survey distributed following the winter sports season is any indication, it is safe to say those offerings, as well as those getting started later in spring, will be just fine from a mitigation standpoint.

The survey, which analyzed data from 1,482 respondents representing 10 different winter sports, showed coaches and athletes did a remarkable job minimizing COVID risk factors. Only 18 percent of responses reported even a single COVID case among their student-athletes, while only 5 percent reported having a coach that tested positive. Even more encouraging is that of the positive tests for student-athletes, less then 3 percent stemmed from interactions with team personnel, with the lion’s share being attributed to outside close contacts. That number was just over 4 percent for coaches who tested positive.

Unlike New York, the IHSA is going to try hosting State Series events for spring sports, starting with the sectional rounds for boys gymnastics and bass fishing that begin May 3 and May 6, respectively. Postseason play in those two programs begin a furious string of 11 championships that will finish June 19.

“We’re really looking forward to finishing and culminating this spring with championships and getting back to the rhythm of that,” said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson. “We’re starting to feel that now in the office as we prepare for that and start talking about how it’s going to be different. We’re really spending a lot of time trying to navigate how we want to see these play out successfully and be the experience we want our kids to have.”

On April 1, the ultimate goal of high school sports in the pandemic was achieved. That day, the District of Columbia State Athletic Association (DCSAA) returned to organized competition, becoming the 51st association to do so. For the first time since mid- March of 2020, every student nationwide had the opportunity to participate in NFHS member association-sponsored activities.

With very little time, the DCSAA decided it would focus solely on providing spring sports. In the process, that decision penned a fitting story plot in that the first sports season to be available across the country is the same one that was almost entirely wiped-out a year ago.

“That one’s of the most fun things I get to talk about,” Neidig said of reinstating spring sports. “And I never want to celebrate the successes absent the sorrows that COVID-19 has caused our communities – certainly in Indiana and across this country. But giving kids an opportunity to put on their local uniform, play for the name of their school or the name of their town across their chest; giving those kids the opportunity to be back with those coaches is everything that we need to justify why we continued to play. Those kids didn’t get to play last year, and we understand the heartache of that, but I’m just happy for them that we’re back.”

The expected widespread participation in the 2021 spring season figures to be the largest step forward to date on the road back to “normal” in high school sports.

Beginning May 6, when high school baseball and softball teams in Massachusetts took the field for the first time in 2021, 46 of the 47 state associations in the country that offer spring baseball and 43 of the 44 that offer spring softball were holding contests. By that same date, all but one of the 51 state associations were sponsoring track and field, and each of the 22 states that oversee boys and girls lacrosse were in the midst of their seasons.

And after a year away, student-athletes like Jacob Raguini, a senior pitcher/outfielder for Virginia Beach Bayside High School, returned to the diamond with palpable excitement.

“I’m sure everybody else is pumped right now,” Raguini told CBS 3 – WTKR during his team’s first preseason conditioning session on March 8. “Just to be feeling this – we’re back on the field now. I’m loving it.”

Kennedy St. Pierre, a track and field athlete for Morse High School in Bath, Maine, shared a similar sentiment in a March 15 article written by The Times Record of Brunswick, Maine.

“I think so many athletes and coaches, including myself, are going to be very excited and relieved,” said the junior. “I had great optimism that this season would look at least a lot like the fall and I’m excited to hear that it’s even better than what I’d hoped for.”

The gratitude wasn’t lost on coaches, either.

“Every day we appreciate being out here because we understand now it can be taken away at any point,” said Broadneck (Maryland) High School baseball coach Matt Skrenchuk in an interview with Capital Gazette.

“It’s been really, really amazing,” said Sara Hale, softball coach at Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge, Connecticut, for a GametimeCT article. “You forget how much you miss being out there.”

And while there are many things about this past year’s high school athletic programs that we won’t miss, the rekindled fervor for these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities on the part of players, coaches and communities is not on that list.

“I think it’s brought a kind of renewed appreciation,” said Nocetti. “I think you’ve seen a lot of coaches and players that still want to win the game when they get on the field – winning the game is always going to be a goal playing sports. But I think they also have a much better perspective now on what’s most important about high school sports, and that’s getting these kids back out there doing something that they’ve missed so much.”