Preparing for his 46th season as the football coach at Bishop McNamara, Rich Zinanni has seen it all when it comes to high school sports — or at least he thought he had.
After the Illinois High School Association rolled out its COVID-19-adjusted schedule for the 2020-21 school year, Zinanni saw something he had never seen before — football in the spring.
“This will be year 46 for me, and this is obviously something different,” Zinanni said. “We’re disappointed, and we understand the whole situation, but I just feel sorry for our kids. Summer workouts have been full with everyone showing up … and now we’ve got to shut it all down, and we really don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The IHSA is planning to hold four separate sports seasons during the school year, as opposed to the traditional three seasons. Football, along with boys soccer and girls volleyball, will move to the spring to go along with boys gymnastics, water polo and girls badminton. In addition, the IHSA plans to keep boys and girls golf and cross country, girls tennis and girls swimming and diving in the fall, when they are set to begin on Aug. 10.
“We’re just excited that they didn’t cancel anything and that they gave the kids the opportunity to participate,” Bishop McNamara athletic director Aaron Hamilton said. “I think that’s important, and I think the kids need it. It’s an important part for them during the school year and high school careers overall.”
With some fall sports still getting the green light to start as planned, some normalcy has started returning to area athletic departments.
“The nice thing with fall sports coming up, it’s like nothing has changed,” Manteno athletic director Doug Wenzel said. “Cross country and golf are going to get going here, and I’m really excited to be any help for coaches and athletes moving forward.
“It’s going to look a lot different for everybody, but I think everyone is going to be excited that everyone has a season to look forward to as of now.”
These substantial changes have resulted in the condensing of all sports no matter what season they play in. With the IHSA moving some sports around, as well as condensing all schedules for the 2021-22 season, athletic directors are faced with many challenges.
“I’m still learning kind of what some of the adjustments will be,” Kankakee athletic director Ronnie Wilcox said. “Some of the concerns will be shortened seasons, officials, scheduling and making sure they are solid. That stuff isn’t too concerning.”
For now, football still is allowed 20 contact days between September and October before having to shut things down until February. Starting in February, Zinanni said he believes his squad will play about seven conference games this season with some type of possible postseason if everything runs smoothly.
That being said, McNamara has won five state football titles under Zinanni. And he said he believes this year’s squad is one of the strongest. Even still, he recognizes how difficult it will be to make a deep run given how small McNamara’s enrollment is as well as dealing with potential burnouts of his players.
“The other thing that happens to us is that we are a small school with about 340 kids total,” Zinanni said. “And our kids play all sports so our kids are going to go straight from basketball/wrestling to football to baseball. So, it’s a lot for those kids in those months.”
Along with having to deal with issues about multi-sport student-athletes, schools will have to deal with the possibility of coaches who coach more than one sport.
“We may have a few of our assistant coaches who might have some issues doing multiple sports at the same time,” Hamilton said. “But as far as our head coaches go, I don’t think we will have anybody who will have to give up something to coach something else.”
Central cross country coach David Ladehoff is excited to get the season started on time, especially because his team’s hard work during the summer won’t go to waste.
“We’re really excited about the news …,” Ladehoff said. “It’s awesome that the fitness that we are in over the summer will carry over in our sport season where these other students are going to have to see if the winter sports can carry them through the spring.”
Ladehoff doesn’t expect many things to change for his squad this season. He recognizes how much distancing cross country already has during a typical season, so he’s not too concerned with any regulations his team might face. Some traditional large invites won’t happen this year, and participants per team could be cut down, but some cross country is better than no cross country.
“Other than probably not being able to run as a team in an event, things will kind of remain the same,” Ladehoff said. “With practices and stuff, we are not going to meet the 50 people cap, so that type of stuff won’t really affect us.”
His only real worry about this year’s season is his team might not really get the chance to run as one come event time.
“If we are going to cap ways in a race situation, it’s going to be really hard if we’re used to big events,” Ladehoff said. “If you can only send 50 people out at a time, it’s going to be really hard for us to have guys who are about the same pace and quality run together.”
Now that boys soccer is part of the new-look spring, girls soccer was one of the sports, along with baseball, softball, track and field, lacrosse, boys volleyball and boys tennis, to move to a summer season that begins May 3 and will end June 26.
Manteno soccer coach Justin Emerson is one of several area coaches who serves as head coach for both the boys and girls teams. The adjustment of going from one season right into another is a challenge Emerson, and many others, are embracing with open arms.
“While coaching both the boys and girls seasons back-to-back will be a new challenge, I actually think it will be good for my girls program,” Emerson said. “We’ll be fresh off the boys season and can hopefully bring things we’ve learned as coaches from the past season and implement those into our girls program.”
As for the changes, Emerson and his boys team aren’t the most excited to wait until the spring, but similar to everyone else, all that matters is they will have a chance to play.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed we won’t be playing in the fall, but more importantly, we’re excited the IHSA has given us a platform to have the chance to play in the spring,” Emerson said. “The boys are going to have some challenges preparing to play in the early spring, but I think more than anything, they’ll be up for the challenge to get the shot to get back to the pitch.”