Local athletic directors weigh in on hurdles pandemic presents to fall sports

Courtesy PhotoMembers of the Newburyport and Pentucket boys cross country teams take off from the starting line at Maudslay State Park during last fall's dual meet. While cross country is generally considered a low risk sport, the pandemic will still present challenges to it and other fall sports should the season take place. Among them, how will schools transport teams will lots of athletes to meets given expected limits on bus capacity? Who will schools get to play, and how long will their seasons be? Athletic directors are still working out answers to these and other questions.

Let’s imagine for a moment that everything goes perfectly between now and the start of school. Coronavirus cases stay low, state and local officials give schools the green light and we have the opportunity to enjoy high school sports this fall. What happens next?

For local athletic directors, the work would be just getting started.

Even under a best case scenario, schools face a daunting challenge trying to restart interscholastic sports while navigating the coronavirus pandemic. While much of the discourse since the pandemic began has focused on the risk inherent to the sports themselves, schools face a variety of other issues that must be addressed if any kind of season is to be held successfully.

For instance, how will athletes get to the games? Who will they play? How many athletes will a program be able to accommodate?

These are among the many challenges that school officials will have to figure out if fall sports are going to happen. While nearly everything is still up in the air, local athletic directors say they are speaking daily to try and come up with a plan so that if fall sports are allowed to happen, they’ll be ready.

Transportation a major concern

One of the biggest and most underappreciated problems posed by the pandemic is how schools will safely transport athletes to games. Under normal circumstances teams will take buses to wherever they have to play, but with the state expected to limit bus capacity in order to allow for more social distancing, there may not be enough room on the buses — or in the budget — to allow teams to travel as normal.

“Even without Covid-19 around transportation was an issue,” said Pentucket athletic director Dan Thornton. “And now if you need three or four buses for a soccer game? It’s going to force us as ADs to be creative in how we put the schedules together.”

Limits on bus capacity or availability would make it difficult for programs to travel with both their varsity and sub-varsity rosters together, and also for sports that feature a large number of participants.

The Newburyport boys and girls cross country programs, for instance, often have hundreds of athletes travel to meets.

“We fit 147 kids on three buses last fall, barely, and now we’ll need seven or eight buses,” said Newburyport High athletic director Kyle Hodsdon. “It’s going to be an expensive trip, and I’m not sure we’ll even have that many buses available.”

Even if the extra buses were available, schools may not have the funds to accommodate additional trips over a full season. Other possible solutions include later start times to allow bus drivers time to finish their after school runs, staggered schedules — with varsity and sub-varsity teams playing on different days — or allowing some athletes to drive to and from games on their own, though that presents a web of other liability concerns and is generally not something schools encourage.

While Cape Ann League athletic directors are preparing for the likelihood of shortened seasons and conference-only schedules, one option that is not currently being considered is a geographic split within the conference itself. In theory having schools sticking closer to home — with the five Greater Newburyport schools in one pod and farther schools like Rockport, Manchester Essex and Hamilton-Wenham in another — would help alleviate potential travel issues. In practice, a geographic split would likely only come if state guidance necessitated it.

“That has not been discussed, we’re all hoping and cautiously optimistic we’ll at least be able to have a league schedule,” said Georgetown athletic director Ryan Browner. “But if the governor says there could be games but you have to stay within a 10-mile radius, we’ll do whatever we can to try and get these kids some games.”

Some sports, not all?

The biggest determining factor in whether or not the fall season happens will be the forthcoming state guidance on K-12 athletics. The MIAA has already committed to following the state’s recommendations, but until those guidelines are published in early August, there’s no way of knowing what the fall season will look like.

Until then, one of the biggest unanswered questions is whether some fall sports will be allowed while others aren’t, or if it’ll be an all or nothing deal.

For now, local athletic directors are cautiously optimistic that at least some sports will be allowed to compete, though others present issues that may be difficult to overcome.

Football’s challenges are obvious. The sport involves a high number of athletes who are constantly in contact with one another, and while installing face shields in the players’ helmets may provide some protection, the nature of the game makes mitigating the risk of transmission difficult.

Girls volleyball and cheerleading, both of which are held indoors, also present a higher risk than other fall sports played outdoors.

In the event these or other sports are disrupted, officials are considering contingency plans that would allow athletes the opportunity to compete later in the school year. A proposed plan being considered by New Jersey in particular has gained popularity locally.

“If the fall season doesn’t go as planned they would have the opportunity to have the fall squeezed in between the winter and spring,” said Triton athletic director Tim Alberts. “So it would be abbreviated but at least the fall students would get to participate.”

Having some sports play while others don’t is preferable to no season at all, but that scenario still presents unique challenges of its own. If, for instance, football were canceled, it’s easy to imagine many of the impacted athletes opting to try out for soccer, cross country or golf instead.

That would be good for the kids and probably good for their new teams, but it would also exacerbate the schools’ transportation issues and potentially necessitate the need for cuts to keep the number of athletes in a program manageable, especially in programs that already boast high numbers.

“You might get that many more student athletes who just decide to run cross country,” Thornton said. “Instead of 120 students you might get 200. Then what would we do? You can’t accommodate that.”

“That’s definitely the last option, we definitely wouldn’t want to impact the opportunity for a certain number of kids,” Alberts said of the prospect of capping participation levels. “That would be really unfortunate if there are kids who aren’t able to participate.” 

A fluid situation

Though nobody knows what the fall has in store, everyone in the high school athletics community agrees that if the season moves forward, it will be a season unlike any other.

The MIAA has already voted to move the start of the fall season back to Sept. 14, and with this week’s news that the start of school will be pushed back 10 days to allow teachers a chance to implement Covid protocols in their classrooms, the season may need to be pushed back even further. As a result teams will likely play shorter seasons, and many athletic directors are pessimistic a state tournament will be feasible. A shorter league tournament, like those held by college conferences, has been floated as an appealing postseason alternative.

“If we’re not going to start games until October, how are you going to possibly run a multi-week state tournament?” Hodsdon said. “I think it would be better to play a longer regular season and then our own league championship.”

Yet after losing the entire spring season to the pandemic, just getting to play at all would be a victory.

“It’s just been so long since the students have been competing in anything,” Thornton said. “Even if a soccer schedule got knocked down to 12 games they’d take it in a second if we could do it safely.”

Any return to play would be accompanied by new public health protocols designed to encourage social distancing. Those would have to address other important areas of concern, like how would athletes safely visit the athletic trainer, or how would locker rooms be set up? Schools will also have to figure out policies related to parents and spectators, but the athletic directors said they’re hopeful they can find a way to provide everyone a safe and rewarding athletic experience.

“We just want to keep everyone safe and we want everyone’s patience in adhering to those rules,” Alberts said. “Ultimately we want the students to have the opportunity to participate, and hopefully we can have fans as well, but first and foremost it’s about making sure players can play.”

All of these preparations could amount to nothing. It’s possible that in the days and weeks ahead, the state could decide to shut down high school sports and that will be that. The athletic directors acknowledged they have good days and bad days, but by and large they are cautiously optimistic that they’ll be able to work something out.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll have something,” Browner said. “To what extent, I don’t know, but I’m optimistic that something will be happening.”

Mac Cerullo can be reached by email at mcerullo@newburyportnews.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.

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