The return of high school sports?
Mon, 08/10/2020 - 11:08am caleb
Practices for the 2020 fall season – a campaign that includes football, boys soccer, volleyball, cross country, and girls golf – begin this week, but there are many unknowns going forward due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
The Michigan High School Athletic Association and its member schools are proceeding with plans to play sports in the fall of 2020 with several adjustments in order to avoid outbreaks of COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic forced the MHSAA to suspend and eventually cancel a portion of its 2019-2020 winter sports playoffs in March, and the association officially cancelled the 2020 spring sports season in April due to COVID-19.
For Michigan, the levels of COVID-19 in the state have been up and down since March, and after a summer that featured numerous events being cancelled, high school sports athletes, coaches, fans, and administrators are facing an uncertain outcome with regard to the 2020 fall campaign.
“The (Representative Council of the Michigan High School Athletic Association), reflecting on the positive impact on their athletes this summer from taking part in offseason training, feels it’s of utmost importance to continue athletic activity moving forward,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “The easy way out would be to postpone all activity to next spring, and we are not taking the easy way out. But we will make wise decisions based on medical guidance. We will make these difficult decisions quickly and appropriately. If we don’t play this fall, it won’t be because we didn’t make every effort to do so.”
Grayling High School has five varsity sports in the fall season: football, volleyball, cross country, boys soccer, and girls golf.
Football started its official practice sessions on Monday, August 10. The MHSAA instructed football programs to conduct the first week of practice sessions with helmets only, no pads.
For Grayling High School, Eric Tunney returns as varsity football coach and Chris Kucharek is back as JV football coach.
Players have been participating in limited outdoor offseason workouts.
“They’ve been working out all summer. They’ve been doing a great job,” Maury said. “There’s been about 30 to 40 kids between JV and varsity doing various drills.”
Maury said he expects the JV team to have larger numbers unless coaches move several underclassmen up to the varsity squad.
“We’ve got more freshmen and sophomores playing than we do juniors and seniors,” Maury said.
Maury said the MHSAA added a new rule this year that allows football players to play in five quarters per week, which allows teams with low numbers more “flexibility” because a player can play two quarters on JV and three quarters on varsity, or one quarter on JV and four quarters on varsity, or any other such combination.
“We have that flexibility now to move kids back and forth. How much we’re going to do it, I don’t know,” Maury said.
In an effort to allow for more social distancing on the sidelines, the MHSAA extended the designated player area from the 25-yard lines to the 10-yard lines. (The coaches must still stay between the 25-yard lines.) Maury said players and coaches and other team personnel have to wear masks while on the sideline; athletes on the field of play during games are allowed to wear face coverings but it is not mandatory.
Maury said the school will be making efforts to physically distance fans in the stadium during games.
“All that will be clearly marked once we get an idea of how many fans are allowed,” Maury said.
The varsity football team’s season opener is slated for Thursday, August 27, at 7 p.m. at Roscommon. The squad’s home opener is slated for Thursday, September 3, at 7 p.m. vs. Elk Rapids. The JV football team’s first two games are scheduled for Wednesday, August 26 (home vs. Roscommon at 6 p.m.) and Wednesday, September 2 (at Elk Rapids at 6 p.m.).
The GHS volleyball program plans to have three teams again this year, and all of its coaches are returning from last year: Tim Zigila (varsity), Sarah Frisbie (junior varsity), and Heather Saunier (JV/freshman). Practices were allowed to begin on Wednesday, August 12.
Maury said he thinks the program will have enough players for three teams.
“We’ll be close,” Maury said. “The big issue this fall is that we didn’t get to meet with the athletes in June. Typically, first week of June, right around the last couple weeks of school, all of the fall sport coaches would hold a meeting, kids would get to sign up and get on the team remind, and all that stuff, and then the coaches typically go down to the middle school and we do one for the incoming eighth grade, and when that doesn’t happen you’re relying on word of mouth.”
“The coaches have been great with getting kids in and there’s a lot of incoming freshmen here already but it’s just that reminder to those parents or those kids who have siblings just to remember practice starts three weeks before school starts,” Maury said.
Maury said the MHSAA instituted several guidelines for volleyball this year in an effort to avoid potential spread of COVID-19. Guidelines include a limit of four teams at one site, not switching benches after games, mask wearing for those not on the court, and cleaning the volleyballs during play.
“Frequent cleaning of game balls. The MHSAA is looking at a three to four ball rotation. Basically, so a ball gets played in, once that ball goes out of play, it comes out, gets cleaned, a new ball comes in,” Maury said. “You’re just rotating in a clean ball every set, things like that.”
Maury said players have the option to wear masks while on the court, but on the bench, players and coaches must wear masks.
“Basically if you’re not in the game you have to have a mask on,” Maury said. “Individual players have the option to wear masks while they’re playing. Some players will do it, some won’t.”
Maury said Grayling High School is encouraging its players to use neck gaiters instead of traditional masks because the gaiters don’t have to be removed, just moved up and down.
“If they don’t have a mask, we have disposable ones for athletics if there’s anyone there that needs one,” Maury said.
Maury said with the new Viking Activity Center – an expansion of Grayling High School’s physical education facility that has a full volleyball court – he was hoping to host some larger tournaments at the high school, but with the current limits on the number of teams allowed at one site, that will not happen this year; however, they can use Grayling Middle School as a second site.
“The nice thing is we have the ability to run four teams here at the high school, go down to the middle school and run four teams at the middle school, because those are separate sites for us,” Maury said.
Maury said the chairs for the volleyball teams at home meets will be spaced six feet apart and they will be cleaned before meets, after meets, and in between as teams transition during meets.
“Once the games actually go on, I think it’s going to be volleyball as usual,” Maury said.
Maury said the biggest issue with regard to volleyball and other indoor sports moving forward will be possible “fan limitations.”
Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-160 – the “Amended Safe Start Order” – says an “an indoor sports arena or similar indoor venue may be open to spectators” as long as “persons not part of the same household may maintain six feet of distance from one another at all times” and the site “limits the number of people in the venue to 25% of its maximum capacity or to 250, whichever is smaller,” in Region 6 and Region 8 in Michigan. (Grayling High School is in Region 6 along with most of northern Michigan.)
The regulations could change.
“Recommendations on spectator attendance will follow before the start of competition; spectators will be limited in accordance with Governor Whitmer’s executive orders on large gatherings,” according to the MHSAA.
Currently, schools in regions other than 6 and 8 are not allowed to practice inside. Maury said Grayling High School’s volleyball program started its summer work on the outdoor volleyball courts at the school and moved inside once it was allowed to do so.
“We’re under the assumption that once August 12 rolls around volleyball can come inside and practice as usual unless the MHSAA says otherwise,” Maury said.
The varsity volleyball team is scheduled to open its season with invitationals at Alma, Frankfort, and Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart in late August. The squad’s first home meet is slated for September 1. The two JV volleyball teams – or the JV team and the freshman team, depending on how they sort the players – are scheduled to start their seasons with the Alpena Invitational on August 21.
Justin Andre is back as coach of the Grayling High School varsity cross country program.
Cross country is classified by the MHSAA as a “lower-risk” sport, but the association did offer a few adjustments for the sport this fall, including a limit of 70 runners per race.
“The nice thing is this year having a smaller size team will benefit you because you’re not allowed to have more than 70 runners in a race,” Maury said.
Maury said numbers for this year’s cross country group are expected to be similar as in past seasons.
“Seven or eight for each boys and girls, so about 15 or 16 total,” Maury said.
Maury said the MHSAA is “encouraging wave starts” in an effort to keep runners more distant, and the association is asking for schools to expand finish lines for the same reason.
“Meets are going to go faster,” Maury said.
Cross country practices were allowed to start on Wednesday, August 12.
The cross country team has meets slated for August 22 and August 29 to begin its 2020 fall season.
Andy Moore, Grayling High School’s wrestling coach, is the new coach of the varsity boys soccer program. Maury said players have been working out two or three days per week since July. Official practice sessions were allowed to begin on August 12.
Like with football, the MHSAA expanded the bench area for soccer, and people on the bench, including coaches, must wear masks. The MHSAA also instituted a four-team limit at tournaments, Maury said, but the Vikings do not have any tournaments scheduled for this year.
Maury said the MHSAA is considering another possible change by eliminating throw-ins on out-of-bounds plays and allowing players to kick the ball in, reducing hand contact with the ball during contests.
Soccer programs are now allowed to play in scrimmage games, but only with players on their own teams, Maury said.
Maury said teams playing travel soccer over the summer did so without any major COVID-19 issues, providing a level of optimism for the upcoming high school season.
“Soccer is in a promising spot where at first there was a question with the contact part of it but they’ve been studying all these travel teams playing and there hasn’t been a big major outbreak or anything like that from these games or scrimmages. We’re pretty confident soccer will be able to start on time and play their schedule,” Maury said.
The varsity soccer team’s scheduled season opener is a road game at Benzie Central on Monday, August 24, at 5 p.m. The squad is slated to host Suttons Bay on Wednesday, August 26, at 5 p.m.
The MHSAA classifies girls golf as a “lower-risk” sport, but Grayling High School may not have enough players to field a team this year.
Maury said the coaching position for the squad has been posted, and he is acting as the interim coach.
“The plan is if we get enough (players), we’ll have it,” Maury said.
“Right now we have two returning girls so we’re going to struggle to find numbers,” Maury said. “If you don’t have four you’re not really a golf program. Last year we had exactly four.”
Maury said the MHSAA added a few guidelines for golf, asking players not to touch the pin, not to exchange score cards, not to share equipment, and to maintain six feet of physical distance on the course. Maury said tournament organizers will be expected to offer grab-and-go food instead of indoor meals and they will have to collect score cards outside.
The MHSAA also instituted a limit of 72 golfers at meets, Maury said.
The golf team’s season opener is slated for August 21 in Kalkaska. The squad is scheduled to host a meet at the Grayling Country Club on August 24.
Will the fall season be able to start on time? If so, will it be able to finish? Unknown.
“As this remains a fluid situation, the MHSAA would release updated timelines for competition for football, girls volleyball, and boys soccer by August 20 dependent on how the spread of the virus is trending statewide,” according to the MHSAA.
Maury said if the state does have to delay the start of the 2020 fall season due to COVID-19, the games during that span will be cancelled and teams will resume their schedules as listed. Some sports, like soccer and volleyball, may be able to make up cancelled games, but others – like football, which plays once per week – probably will not be able to reschedule lost contests, he said.
Will Grayling High School offer concessions during the upcoming season? Yes.
“The plan is to yes have concessions in some capacity, even if it’s just selling water and maybe some candy and pre-packaged stuff,” Maury said.
Will athletes be taking buses to athletic competitions, or will parents have to drive them?
“We want our kids on our school bus driven by our drivers,” Maury said.
Buses will be available and distancing measures, along with masking, will be in place, school officials said. Maury said two buses may have to be used for larger teams like football, or regular school buses may have to be used more often. (The school’s regular buses can seat 72 people whereas the school’s activity bus can only hold 48 people, Maury said.)
“We’re going to do whatever we can to keep our athletes spread apart and keep our athletes safe and give them a chance to participate not only in school but go ahead and play athletics as well,” Maury said.
Will there be physical tickets for games this year?
“Schools should strongly consider using a digital ticket or cashless system. Schools must work together to develop a distribution plan for the limited amount of tickets available per game. If a physical ticket is used, each school should consider conducting a pre-sale, with no on-site ticket sales – only tickets, not money, is collected at the event site,” according to the MHSAA’s recent “Overview Of Important Return To Play Topics.”
Maury said Grayling High School and its athletic league are working on an online ticket system, “looking into ticketing software,” but it’s in the exploratory stage.
“We’re in the beginning stages of what that’s going to look like,” Maury said. “That’s definitely being looked at.”
Will the school be selling season passes? No. Not right now, due to uncertainty of starting the season on time, finishing the season, and possible spectator limits.
“Season passes right now are temporarily suspended. We are not selling season passes right now until we get a more clear definition of when games are going to happen or how far it gets pushed back. We don’t want to sell a season pass and then the season gets cancelled, now we’re issuing refunds for half a pass and things like that,” Maury said.
Will games be available to watch live on the internet? Possibly.
Maury said the school is exploring the possibility of live streaming games online. Users would have to pay a monthly fee and log in. Maury said users would be able to watch Grayling High School and other MHSAA games and meets online.
Is the Viking Activity Center open for walking? Not right now. The school is trying to limit the number of people who enter.
Maury said the Grayling High School track inside of Viking Stadium is open to the public at night for walking.