GLADWIN – One of the most quoted lines in the Bible includes the passage, “for everything there is a season.” That is very true when it comes to high school sports. Friday nights in the fall seem to be made for football and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic it would have seemed almost sacrilegious to even talk about moving it to another part of the school year, but that’s what Governor Whitmer is proposing. She has asked the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) to consider flipping the spring and fall seasons.
A set of safety protocols for sports was included in the Michigan Safe Schools: Michigan’s 2020-21 Return to School Roadmap, which was released on June 30. The protocols vary depending upon the phase the local community is in. Areas in Phase 1-3 will not have athletics. Schools will remain closed and all athletics will continue to be suspended. The plan allows schools in areas under the Phase 4 or 5 designations to reopen for in-person instruction. Phase 4 requires the district to follow certain required safety protocols while those in Phase 5 will have minimal required protocols.
The list of required protocols for athletics in Phase 4 is quite extensive and includes: guidelines for personal hygiene and the disinfection of equipment. Screening is also required before every event including practice. Facial coverings must be worn on buses and the buses must be disinfected before and after every use. Spectators are allowed as long as facial coverings are used and social distancing is maintained. Indoor weight rooms and physical conditioning activities that require shared equipment are suspended. Large-scale indoor spectator events are suspended. Outdoor spectator events are limited to 100 and social distancing is required.
Schools in Phase 5 have a set of protocols that are recommended rather than required. They include: indoor spectator events limited to 50 people, outdoor events limited to 250, six foot distance should be maintained. Screening, hand hygiene, and bus disinfection. Indoor weight rooms and conditioning activities allowed, social distancing should be maintained when practical.
On July 1, the MHSAA released their latest update for member schools in response to the Roadmap plan. In their response they reiterated that the current plan is to “play all scheduled fall sports in the fall,” and to “do everything within our control to safely have all three high school sports seasons in 2020-21, even if conditions change, they would require creativity to provide those three seasons.” The MHSAA release goes on to say that contingency planning has been going on since March and reflects their desire to play all three seasons during their traditional time slots, but they will consider moving a sport if necessary. The MHSAA plans to have a decision by late July.
With a final decision not coming until July, several of the local teams have begun preparations for the fall season. The Beaverton and Gladwin football teams have begun their offseason workouts while the Gladwin female athletes have also begun conditioning. Since Gladwin County is still in Phase 4 they must follow the protocols outlined in the Return to School Roadmap.
Football is the key player in the current situation for several reasons the biggest of which is money. The MHSAA derives well over a million dollars in revenue from football making the sport its biggest moneymaker. The only other sport to top $1 million a year is basketball. With so much on the line it is little wonder that talk has resurfaced about moving the season to spring with the hopes that the virus will be under control by then. A move that could have several unintended consequence for Michigan schools and athletes.
To get a better feel for the situation I reached out to the Gladwin County varsity coaches that would be the most affected by a change.
Gladwin football coach Marc Jarstfer brought a couple of possible issues to my attention. Most football recruiting for the class of 2021 will be completed before spring. The majority of high school athletes will have signed their letters of intent by then. Many senior football players graduate early so that the can participate in spring practices at their new college. Will those players change their mind and stick around to play a high school season? Even if they don’t graduate early, is it fair to put a kids body through the rigors of a season, which will end about a month before they are off to summer camp in college?
Jarstfer also mentioned that many schools near the Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin border fill out their schedules by playing out of state schools. Menominee in the western Upper Peninsula plays four games against schools from Wisconsin. How will those dates be filled if Wisconsin plays during the traditional fall season? Will players in border districts opt to move/transfer to out of state schools to play in the fall? All questions that the MHSAA will have to factor into their decision making process.
Beaverton coach Aaron Seiser said that he is in favor of “anything that would allow us to have a football season.” Like Gladwin, they have begun summer conditioning which is difficult because our area is still in Phase 4. All work has to be done outside including weight training. The Beavers bring as much of the weight room outside as is practical. “We still can’t lift heavy,” said Seiser, but we are making the best of it.
A move to the spring would make for an “odd season,” continued Seiser. “We usually have camps and 7 on 7s which wouldn’t have, but we don’t have it now so it would be a wash. Everybody is in the same boat.” Seiser also talked about the need for a decision soon. Practice would normally start on August 10, which worries him. “If we have kids that haven’t worked out heavy all summer, I wonder what kind of restrictions or guidelines the state will have in place about opening practice. A lot has to happen before August 10.”
There is also a concern in the football community about ensuring a balanced playing field. Athletes farther north are in Phase 5. They came work out in private gyms. Those players are able to get the necessary heavy work in they so choose.
Volleyball coaches also have many of the same concerns. Gladwin coach Tony Wetmore thinks that athletics will play a huge role in helping society get back to normal and will be happy to play whenever they get the chance. Like their football counterparts the female athletes at Gladwin High School began conditioning outside as soon as it was allowed.
Wetmore said that he has had many conversations with his upperclassman about “hoping for the best, but mentally preparing for the worst.” They will be ready to play fall or spring. He has had as many as 32 players working out three days a week and has plans for the rest of the summer. “I’m nervous and excited as we navigate uncharted territory to try and give the students and athletes the best education and athletic experiences that we can.”
Beaverton volleyball coach Steve Evans feels that the top priority is doing whatever is necessary to ensure complete seasons. He said, “if that means moving us around we will make it work.” Everyone will be inconvenienced if the seasons are moved so the main thing is to make sure more seasons are not missed. “They (students) have a very limited opportunity to play varsity sports, and I would hate to see them miss more.”
Beaverton volleyball is a senior dominated team, which makes it nice for Evans. They have great leadership with the girls organizing their own workouts. They also get together occasionally to play sand volleyball and different things.
One issue that may pop up in Michigan with respect to moving volleyball to the spring would be the decision whether to play for an AAU team or the high school team. Evans mentioned that an athlete might choose AAU over high school to get more exposure to college coaches.
Evans also believes that the MHSAA has worked very hard to make sure that they get it right. “I appreciated how long they waited last year to cancel seasons,” he said. “There were a lot of quick cancellations, but the MHSAA seemed to wait as long as possible but ran out of time.”
Gladwin baseball coach Troy Gary thinks that it is a bad idea to flip flop the seasons. He, like many other coaches feels that if Whitmer is worried enough to even consider a move she is afraid that COVID-19 is going to spike again. If that is the case and the season have been moved some athletes will have missed their sport for the second year in a row. “I am 100% against a change in the seasons,” said Gary. “In theory we could have a kid that was a junior last year never get to play one inning of varsity baseball.”
Weather also has to be taken into account when considering a move. Football and soccer can be played in almost any type of conditions. Baseball and softball can’t. The way the current spring schedule is constructed teams are playing non-conference games early when the likelihood on cancellations is greater. By the time the post season rolls around the weather is usually good. Moving those sports to the fall would result in the opposite situation. As the games get more important the weather is deteriorating. Certainly not an ideal situation.
Gary believes that if a move does occur Gladwin and Beaverton would be in fairly good shape. He and Beaverton coach Scott Wicke have had their Lightening team practicing in anticipation of a possible summer season. If the MHSAA opens up for competition soon the summer team will begin playing games. Several other athletes play for the Thunder so both high school programs could get up to speed quickly if they had to.
Gladwin soccer coach Jerome Smalley is in a unique situation. With the boys playing in the fall and the girls in the spring he will be spread very thin by a move. The physical nature of soccer makes it unlikely that the girls’ season would be moved to the fall. He brought up several possible conflicts besides the distinct possibility that multiple coaches around the state will find themselves coaching two teams at once. Football and soccer will be competing for limited space at some schools and there may be a shortage of referees. “I’d rather play than cancel the season,” he said. “Hopefully it will work out for the kids.”
As we approach the middle of July there are many questions yet to be answered. I do have faith that the MHSAA will have the best interest of students in mind when making the final call. Personally, I love football, but do not want to see spring athletes miss out again.