Now less than three weeks away from the supposed start of fall sports practices, no one can say for sure whether there will be a season and, if there is, if it will start on time. The Illinois High School Association Board of Directors is set to meet Wednesday in regard to the next step of the Return To Play Guidelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic and likely will come to a decision on the fall as well, leaving athletes, coaches and fans as nervously curious as George himself.
There are several paths the IHSA could take, especially as we have seen dozens of states make official rulings themselves. The most notable decision in recent days has come from California, where the fall, winter and spring seasons will be consolidated into just winter and spring sports. But some California schools announced they were rebuking the decision, as the northern portion of the state will compete as scheduled, removing themselves from state postseason eligibility in the process.
Several northern schools decided to continue as planned because of the sheer amount of athletes and coaches who would overlap sports, particularly for smaller schools. For a healthy chunk of Illinois that falls south of Interstate 80, the weather isn’t viable for holding outdoor sports in the winter, so that plan is dead as a doornail for Illinois.
But there are a few ideas or combinations of ideas that could work, including the plan to return as planned, which is what almost all of our neighboring states already have announced they plan to do.
Obviously, this is the logistical no-brainer. Nothing has to get moved around. Postseason hosting locations don’t need to be resecured, nor do officials. But with contact not permitted, it’s a gamble to assume that will be flipped by Aug. 10, the first day of fall practice. Illinois is on an overall downward trend at a time when several areas are spiking, so the numbers are relatively on our side in this regard, but with the IHSA making clear in recent weeks the ultimate decision lies beyond their hands, one of the more proactive states in the union when it comes to the coronavirus could opt to play it safe here as well.
If that’s the case, we can’t just totally cancel the fall sports season. Basing this solely off of the unscientific data that is comprised of my Twitter feed and text messages from those with similar and better direct knowledge of the powers that be, one of the most likely scenarios is to simply swap the fall and spring seasons.
Of course, some sports could stay as is. Cross country, boys and girls golf, girls swimming and diving and girls tennis likely would be able to continue as scheduled in the fall. The most obvious change would be bringing baseball and softball in and moving football to the spring.
But what about soccer and volleyball? Boys soccer is a fall sport, and the girls play in the spring. One of the primary reasons the schedule is like that is to allow one coach to coach both teams, so you can’t just move them both to the same season. For volleyball, the script is flipped, with girls in the fall and boys in the spring.
Not to mention, there’s the question on the transmission risk factor. Some of my old teachers will tell you science never really was my strong suit, so I can’t say I am the one to comment on the moments of heads colliding in soccer or a volleyball slapping across dozens of hands.
Another option that has been floated is starting the school sports year with winter sports, beginning at the start of the 2021 calendar year or close to it. All seasons would have to be abbreviated, but fall sports could follow the winter sports in March and April, with May and June featuring the spring sports.
Unlike the California plan, this wouldn’t cause an overlap for coaches and players, although it would tighten what is already a very slim window between seasons. While burnout is quite real, any school sport voids are filled with club sports for many kids, so this probably isn’t quite as large of an issue, at least for the IHSA, as some might believe.
But this route certainly gives the best chance for all sports to have some sort of season. There likely would be conference-only schedules before the postseason, an option clearly better than nothing at all. It also would give families more time to mull over any virus-related risks they might have on their minds. The only major downfall, and it’s more a difficulty than a downfall, is working with the state’s colleges that provide hosting sites for postseason tournaments, especially as college sports remain up in the air as well.
My last column touched on the responsibility that needs to come with a decision such as this, and I stand by that. But if we can responsibly launch sports on time, then that’s exactly what should happen. Even with a slight delay, and possibly the cancellation of fall nonconference schedules, a condensed season in the fall and full seasons in the winter and spring are about as good as one could ask for.
Sure, we could see in a couple of weeks this decision won’t be feasible, and plenty of folks would see a pushed deadline as kicking the can down the road. But it’s plenty realistic for the state to say any delays past X amount of weeks would mean no sports at all in the fall.
If that were to happen, I think the idea of starting with winter sports and following it with fall and then spring seasons would be the next best route. Not only would holding out hope for the time being still give us a chance at relative normalcy, it also would give the IHSA time to get new logistics hammered out.
I don’t know when prep sports will resume with competitions. When they do, we will be there to give our readers the best possible coverage. No pandemic ever will change that.