The start of the winter high school sports season in Massachusetts will be delayed two weeks, but most sports will be permitted to play under a number of votes made by the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association Friday afternoon.
Basketball, ice hockey, gymnastics, swimming and diving, and Nordic and alpine skiing were all approved to start practices on Dec. 14, with the board opting to delay the Dec. 10 date recommended by the COVID-19 Task Force.
Though November 30 was originally approved as a start date to the winter sports season a few months ago, the Task Force felt it prudent to leave a two-week window after the Thanksgiving holiday. Since students return to school the following Monday, the Board voted (20-1) that two weeks from that date would be safest in terms of preventing COVID clusters that could shut down schools and sports.
Also, wrestling has been moved to the spring season for 2021 (late April into June). The Task Force recommended that, as the state has left no options for wrestling and its very close contact to hold competitions this winter. While the Fall 2 "wedge" season was an option, spring was targeted because it leaves the possibility wrestling could be held outdoors.
"There was no path for wrestling for the winter," said MIAA liaison Phil Napolitano, noting that a survey of wrestlers shows less conflict between other spring sports than with football in Fall 2.
Indoor track was moved to Fall 2 amid concerns that well-used venues such as Reggie Lewis Track and Field Center will remain closed. If certain leagues do have venues available for indoor track, they'll be allowed to ask their District Athletic Committees to approve a regular winter season under National Federation of High Schools rules.
In terms of modifications to the approved sports, most centered around social distancing. Basketball will have no jump balls, reduced number of players along the line during free throws, only five seconds of face-to-face contact allowed, and all in-bounds plays coming from the sideline rather than under the bucket.
Basketball's game-day rosters were initially limited to 12 players, but the board of directors voted to amend that to 15 so long as a gym has enough room for social distancing.
For ice hockey, the only in-game modification is that the play will be blown dead if three players are pursuing the puck along the wall and that six feet of distance must be maintained on faceoffs. No locker rooms will be open at any time, however, so dressing in the parking lot (or in designated areas in the rink), maintaining social distance on the bench, and finding places to distance between periods were big topics of discussions.
Hockey teams will be able to dress a maximum of 20 players, though that number could shrink if particular rinks don't have enough room for proper social distancing.
All sports will be played with facemasks; hockey players may wear gaiters instead as long as they are two-ply.
All sports will continue to have the handshake rule suspended, and players are strongly discouraged from high-fiving or other touching; even extending a hand to help up a teammate or opponent is expressly discouraged.
"Everything we've done is with the best interest and safety of the student-athletes in mind," MIAA President Jeff Granatino said. "Thousands of student-athletes worked hard to make this fall season work, and it's been our hope we can do it again in the upcoming winter season."
Whether fans will be allowed at games will be decided by each league and venue. The Northeastern Conference, for example, plans to continue allowing only a limited number of fans from home teams and no visitors.
Athletic directors from North Shore leagues will begin planning their school's respective winter seasons this week, with seasons likely beginning in early January and games played, most likely, only within their conference.
The MIAA had already voted to cancel the winter sports state playoffs in October.
The full list of safety modifications approved for each winter sport can be found here: http://www.miaa.net/contentm/easy_pages/view.php?sid=38&page_id=317