By DOUG DONNELLY
OTTAWA LAKE—The Michigan High School Athletic Association announced plans this week to move forward with plans for a fall sports season, although some modifications to the schedule seem inevitable.
Whiteford athletic director and football coach Jason Mensing said the most important thing is the plan announced by the state keeps high school sports on track to be played. The alternative is school sports being shutdown and kids’ seeking out other ways to participate in sports.
“It is great news that fall sports will be moving forward,” he said. “We believe that many of our kids are going to engage in activities together regardless if school sports are played or not. Therefore, being able to have school sports with significant protocols to maximize mitigation should allow us to have an environment that is as safe as possible for our students.”
The Representative Council of the MHSAA Wednesday approved the next steps in returning sports for member schools, adopting a plan to phase in competition for Fall sports in hopes of continuing to deter the spread of COVID-19.
The Council affirmed that lower-risk sports – cross country, Lower Peninsula girls golf, Lower Peninsula boys tennis and Upper Peninsula girls tennis, and Lower Peninsula girls swimming & diving – may begin practice on Aug. 12 and begin competition on their traditional start dates of Aug. 19 and 21.
However, moderate and high-risk sports – football, girls volleyball and boys soccer – may begin practice but not competition. Decisions about competition timelines for these three sports will be made by Aug. 20.
Practice for boys soccer and girls volleyball may begin on Aug. 12. Football will delay the start of practice with full player pads and equipment until Monday, Aug. 17. The week of Aug. 10 may include football practice sessions consisting of conditioning, physical training and skill work with no other player equipment except helmets. This week of acclimatization is similar to allowed summer football activities that have been ongoing for schools since June.
Erie Mason is set to join the Tri-County Conference when the fall sports season kicks off. Erie Mason football coach Rob Beaudrie said his Eagle football team is chomping at the bit ready to play. He’s cautiously optimistic.
“We’ll be ready,” he said. “I just want to see the kids get a chance to play. They are raring to go. We’ll be ready. We’ve had kids at the voluntary workouts all summer. I think they are getting a little worried, especially after missing spring sports. They just want to play.”
The situation is still fluid. This week, Lenawee County Athletic Association member Brooklyn Columbia Central shut down all of its football practices when one of its student athletes tested positive for Covid-19.
Beaudrie had formed a youth flag football league and had 100 kids sign up within a few days. Just today he decided to cancel the league because of the restrictions Gov. Whitmer announced about gatherings.
“There is too much uncertainty,” Beaudrie said.
The Council – the MHSAA’s 19-member legislative body that includes Whiteford’s Mensing – also voted to cancel scrimmages in all Fall sports for this school year and approved limitations on numbers of teams that may compete together at regular-season tournaments, invitationals and other multi-team events. The Council believed eliminating scrimmages emphasized the importance of keeping teams from mixing before the first date of competition, and the regular-season limitations may lessen opportunities for viral spread while still allowing meets to be conducted.
As this remains a fluid situation, the MHSAA would release updated timelines for competition for football, girls volleyball and boys soccer by Aug. 20 dependent on how the spread of the virus is trending statewide. Plans remain reliant on sustained metrics measuring virus spread and/or progression by schools and regions across the state according to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Safe Start Plan. Currently two regions are in Phase 5, which allow for limited indoor activity, while the rest are in Phase 4 and unable to host indoor training, practice or competition.
The start of volleyball and swimming & diving practices are in part contingent on the reopening of indoor facilities. Those sports may begin their practices outdoors if not allowed to be indoors by Aug. 12.
“The Council, 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. “If we take a month off, our students will find opportunities to compete through non-school entities that may not be as focused on safety. Our athletic directors and coaches can provide the safest-possible environment to return to sports, and this phased-in approach to competition will help schools continue building on progress already made.
“The Council chose to make these adjustments to help ensure our athletes have a safe regular season this fall. As we continue to solidify the regular season, we can then turn our attention to building a safe postseason for our athletes.”
The MHSAA also has posted sport-by-sport guidance documents outlining increased precautions designed to limit the viral spread, plus a four-page overview with precautions that apply generally for all sports.