COVID-19 and sports

GLADWIN COUNTY – The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) Representative Council voted to allow high school football this fall in response to the lifting of Executive Order 176 by Governor Whitmer on Thursday afternoon. The lifting of the order also allows for the immediate start of the soccer and volleyball seasons in our region. Prior to the lifting of the order the soccer and volleyball teams from Gladwin County were required to travel to either Region 6 or 8 to compete.

For high school sports fans the last six months have seemed like a bad dream. For the seniors of the class of 2020 it was a nightmare. Events moved fast in mid March as the severity of the pandemic started to become apparent. I still remember where I was when we got word that the MHSAA was suspending the winter sports tournaments. It seemed almost surreal at the time.

The first inkling of what was to come came in a MHSAA press release on Wednesday, March 11. In it they provided assurances that the winter post-season events would continue, but with some attendance limitations. At that point the hockey finals along with the swimming and diving state meets and the gymnastics finals would still be held over the weekend of March 13-14. State champions were due to be crowned in multiple events on Saturday the 14th. The boys and girls basketball tournaments would also continue.

The spectator limitations were announced on Thursday morning, March 12. No on-site spectators would be allowed at the swimming finals. Only parents and legal guardians would be present at the gymnastics, hockey and basketball games. By Thursday afternoon the tournaments were suspended. “Based on the events of the last 48 hours and with things changing by the minute, we believe we have no choice but to suspend our winter tournaments immediately,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said at the time. 

In this release Uyl also said, “this is a suspension until we have a better handle on the situation. The health and welfare of everyone involved is our number one priority.” At this point everyone believed that we would eventually complete the winter seasons and crown champions. When Whitmer closed the schools for three weeks, later that night, the MHSAA was forced to take further action. They directed schools to suspend activities for all sports for all seasons – effective Monday, March 16 through at least Sunday, April 5. By this point some spring sports had begun practice and fall sports were also doing some offseason training.

I think that at this point everyone including the MHSAA still believed that the winter postseason would be completed and the spring sports would be competed. I had the opportunity to talk to several senior athletes from Beaverton and Gladwin High Schools. Softball players Grace Beardsley, and Averie Bassage from Beaverton along with baseball players David Krohn, Jarrett Inscho, Erik Seebeck and Dillon Kroening all took the time to share their opinions. While all were optimistic about a spring season they were also realistic and understood the gravity of the situation. Looking back at our conversations from that time all were hoping for a season, but even then they realized that a cancellation was possible. Both Seebeck and Inscho mentioned that they hoped the MHSAA would be deliberate in the decision making process and not rush to cancel the season. It wasn’t long before the MHSAA ran out of time.

On April 2 the governor declared a “state of disaster” and closed school buildings for the remainder of the 2019/20 school year. With the schools closed the MHSAA had no choice but to cancel the remainder of the winter and spring sports seasons. That decision was announced on April 3. In its release announcing the cancellation the MHSAA pointed out that his was the first school year since 1942/43 that multiple finals were not played. The 1942/43 cancellations were also due to a another global catastrophe, World War ll. 

In the statement Uyl said, “We are heartbroken to not be able to provide these opportunities for Michigan’s student-athletes, and especially seniors. We continue to hear from dozens asking us to hold out hope. But safety always must come first, and Governor Whitmer is making courageous decisions to safeguard the people of our state.”

At this point there were many questions surrounding the future of high school sports, leaving most districts wondering what would come next. Finally on May 29 some of those questions were answered when the MHSAA released it Guidance for Reopening School Sports. Based primarily on direction provided by the MHSAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). It provided updated timelines and recommendations to guide the return of sports.

Uyl and the MHSAA Representative Council always made it clear that they believe sports are an integral part of the school experience and they would do everything possible to ensure their safe return. “The MHSAA and its Representative Council believe restarting school sports is essential to the physical and mental well-being of students, and the guidelines outlined for schools today provide the ‘How’ for schools to return to athletics when they’ve received the go-ahead from state and county health officials,” Uyl said in the release.

Schools still could not host any type of athletic activities and coaches could not be present when athletes worked out. Voluntary virtual workouts were allowed and coaches could communicate with and provide instructions virtually to their athletes. Schools would have to wait until the governor ended her “Safer at Home” order before they could begin using school facilities for athletics. This happened on June 1.

Once the order was lifted the MHSAA provided Guidance Updates, which outlined how schools could restart their athletic programs. Many restrictions were in place, but at least there was a glimmer of hope. It was obvious that the MHSAA expected school sports to return in the fall. Finally on July 1 they announced that all scheduled sports would be played in the fall, but that they were developing contingency plans to be put into effect if necessary including postponing high risk sports such as football until a latter date.

In late July the Representative Council issued an update that allowed low risk sports including cross country to begin practice on August 12. Moderate risk sports such as soccer and volleyball could also start practicing on the 12th, but volleyball teams in all Regions except 6 and 8 had to practice outside because gyms were still closed. Football was given the go ahead to start the acclimatization week on August 10. Things were finally starting to look up for high school athletes.

Then on August 14 the MHSAA put football on hold again in response to feedback from multiple sources including the Governor’s office. On the 20th they provided Guidance for fall conditioning and coach-player contact days through October with helmets only.  Guidance was also given for the other fall sports. Gyms were still closed and soccer competitions prohibited in Regions 1-5 and 7 under the current Executive Orders. 

Finally on September 3 the Governor released a new Executive Order that opened gyms and pools, and allowed soccer to begin competing in all regions of the state. It also removed restrictions on football. The MHSAA approved the restart of fall football with practices beginning on Tuesday September 8 and games on September 17 and 18. Teams will pick up their schedule in week 4 and all schools will play first round playoff games on October 30-31. According the MHSAA website the volleyball district tournaments will start November 2-7, soccer October 14-16 & 19-24 and the cross country regionals will be either October 30 or 31.

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