Indiana coaches, players and ADs eyeing start of fall sports with both optimism and worry
EVANSVILLE – Optimism and trepidation. Your brain views them as conflicting ideas.
Which one you gravitate toward depends on if you’re a glass half-full or half-empty kind of person. But is it possible to feel both in the same moment? If you ask anyone involved with high school athletics right now, the answer is 100 percent yes.
The Indiana Department of Education released 38 pages of guidance recently as schools plan to reopen in the fall. The coronavirus pandemic required closures across the board in the spring. The restart plan includes three phases of recommendation for athletics.
A return begins July 6 with school-authorized activity on campus. If all goes well, it concludes with games returning Aug. 15. After months in the proverbial wilderness of no team meetings or practice, it’s offered a ray of hope for players, coaches and administrators.
Many questions remain. Everyone involved will need to adjust to measures designed with social distancing and safety in mind. In theory, those can appear difficult varying by sport. And what happens in the fall if there is another mass spread of the virus?
It can all feel like a complicated mess.
“Honestly, we’ll probably never truly have normal again,” said Forest Park athletics director Doug Louden. “They’re doing what they can to see if this thing works. The ultimate goal is that we follow those guidelines and keep everyone safe — not just student athletes.”
Changes needed to schedule, approach
The Courier & Press reached out to several athletic directors in the area for their initial thoughts on the phases outlining a return. Many agreed it is a good first step.
Phase I runs from July 6-19 and includes several restrictions. Student athletes are limited to 15 hours per week of school contact activity and no sport may have more than two days in a week or on consecutive days. Activity days are limited to three hours per day, while conditioning is limited to four days.
Students can only attend one conditioning session per day. Locker rooms should not be utilized. Workouts should be conducted in defined, smaller groups with the same students always together. Free weight exercise requiring a spotter isn’t allowed, nor is contact in any defined contact sports.
Coaches and other staff should wear masks as should students who aren’t engaging in vigorous activity. They will all be trained and screened for signs or symptoms of COVID-19 prior to participating in workouts or practices.
“I think what they’ve come out with is realistic and feasible,” said Tell City athletics director Andy Brunner. “The biggest obstacle we see is the sharing of student-athletes. At a smaller school, you have to have your best athletes playing multiple sports to compete across the board. Coaches throughout the department have to work together to create a schedule that works best for those student-athletes.
“We will most likely hit stretching, cardio, agility, and plyometrics hard the first few weeks.”
Phase II begins July 20 and is tentatively set to run through Aug. 15. It eases some limitations, while keeping other guidelines such as masks and any state or local rules on social distancing.
If locker or meeting rooms are used, 50 percent capacity is recommended. Contact would be allowed as defined by the Indiana High School Athletic Association. Free weight exercises may be conducted. Students must be expected to shower at school or at home and wash workout clothing immediately upon returning home.
No formal competition is allowed with the exception of girls golf, whose first official contest date is scheduled for Aug. 3.
“It’s a new world for everybody and we’re all going to try to figure it out together,” said Louden. “There’ll be bumps in the road but we have to put trust in coaches, maintenance and administration to follow guidelines and do the best they can so we can keep (the virus) from spreading any further than it already has.”
Phase III would begin August 15. Many of the same guidelines remain, including social distancing and masks when practical. Coaches and players will continue to look for any symptoms of COVID-19.
The big change would be the allowing athletic contests, which would fall on the first day scheduled games would be allowed to take place according to the IHSAA calendar.
According to the DOE, contact should be limited to that necessary to compete as defined by the IHSAA. Spectators, media and vendors can be present but should implement social distancing and follow established mass gathering guidelines.
It presents many questions that some administrators don’t have the answer to quite yet.
“The most challenging part for me as a new athletic director is when I get questions and I don’t really know,” said North athletics director Tyler Choate. “It’s an uncomfortable feeling when people are looking for you for answers and you don’t have them. Our people have been patient understanding it’s a work in progress.
“I think this whole experience will shine a light on people getting together for a common cause. I think that’s the beauty of sports.”
It’s an important point to remember. The situation is very fluid with models and answers changing daily. Eyeing that potential Aug. 15 date doesn’t mean to ignore the steps still needed to be taken. Departments and schools will continue to clean and sanitize the facilities daily.
EVSC Director of Athletics Andy Owen said he has met with the other athletic directors under him first. Next week he’ll communicate with EVSC coaches about expectations surrounding the return to athletics. He wants families and athletes to feel comfortable about the situation at hand.
He also noted that all EVSC coaches will undergo training provided by the state health organization to learn about COVID symptoms. There will guidelines on how to screen athletes when they do get there.
“We’re continuing to learn each and every day,” said Owen. “Things change. Even the July 6 date is subject to change. It’s our responsibility to be prepared for a safe return for our students. I think the key for us in the EVSC isn’t necessarily about preparing to win that first game but a safe return in August. Prove that we can do this in athletics so families feel a lot more safer in the school year.”
Complexity depends on the sport in question
There is one group involved in this equation that will be trusted to follow all guidelines, especially during the first two phases. The coaches.
Those who spoke noted some of the challenges that could present themselves. Trying to determine a regular cough or cold vs. COVID. The time off since the spring that might result in injuries or less than ideal fitness required for certain sports.
One thing was clear. The coaches will move heaven and earth to follow all guidelines in order to return to the field or gym.
“We’re gonna have to make some fundamental changes with how we do things,” said Southridge football coach/athletics director Scott Buening. “We have to keep the social distancing as much as we can. We’ve got to break some habits that we’ve always had. The bottom line is, we have to keep our kids safe and coaches safe and create a good environment to practice in and work in.”
Some fall sports will be easier to conduct and require less headaches. Golf is the simplest in that regard. There is already a max of four per group and it’s played outdoors on several acres of open land. The sport can currently host local tournaments with amble safety measures.
Cross country is also possible with it running outdoors and practices could implement social distancing. The one concern would be the start of a race when all athletes are bunched together. Although confined to a smaller space, tennis is considered among this group being outdoors and limited to one or two players on one side of a fence. New balls are generally used for each match.
That leaves three team sports with the most concern. And it includes the biggest money maker.
“It’s no secret, it’s football,” said Choate. “We’re talking fall sports and soccer is a close contact sport as well. But football can’t really distance themselves when they’re tackling somebody.”
Revenue made from football (ticket sales, all-sport passes, concessions, etc.) helps drive the rest of the department for the remainder of the school year. The worry of a shorter or even outright zero-game season has been in the minds of every high school administrator or coach since the spring.
First up, how do coaches view the restart plan? A dose of optimism. It’s at least a path back to some resemblance of the sport. The first few works will be individual workouts or those than can be done in small groups.
Coaches are worried about conditioning since athletes have not been under their supervision since March. One estimated one-third of kids will come back in great shape.
“I’m just happy to see some steps so we can get back to playing football,” said Heritage Hills coach Todd Wilkerson. “Not really seeing them since mid-March in terms of a whole group and really pushing them, that’s really my main concern. It’s just trying to be creative in terms of how to teach what we need to teach with limited time and some rules that won’t allow us to be as physical as we’ve been in the past in the summer.”
“If I was a first year or second year coach trying to implement a new system, I’m sure I wouldn’t feel as comfortable as I do with the situation.”
Football was drawn closer to being a near-full year sport. The spring would have been strength and conditioning, while new coaches slowly implement their system. The summer would feature more workouts, 7-on-7 tournaments and team camps.
The first official contact practice is scheduled for August 6, so there is still time to put this puzzle together. But the question of how to safely restart football isn’t 100 percent answered yet.
You can’t socially distance in a huddle and the sideline boxes teams into a designated area. Teams also can’t avoid hitting and touching each other. Contact would be allowed beginning in Phase II. Everyone is in the same boat, but that doesn’t make it easier.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has changed just about everything that we used to call normal,” said Mater Dei coach Mike Goebel. “The situation has been mind boggling. Our staff, like most I am sure, has been virtually working to upgrade our plans for practices and the upcoming season. The virtual connection is definitely in place, but for high school football, it is just not the same.
“Demonstrating a play on Hudl, showing a clip from the games, recognizing player assignments and strategies online is good but very different than on the field instruction and execution. Players gain confidence and understanding when they can physically perform individual drills and team work on the practice field.”
Among the others, volleyball comes with a unique problem being played indoors. That limits space to practice and compete. Do schools need to purchase more volleyballs and sanitize them more often? How do you follow social distancing on the bench? Coaches at every program are working hard to answer those questions.
That leaves soccer, which has the second-most contact among the six IHSAA sports in the fall. Mater Dei coach Amy Weber has been updating her team on the next steps but also says her girls generally know what to do on their own.
They’ll start with their normal conditioning routine on July 6 before having team camp two weeks later. Players don’t need masks on the field, but they’ll have them in a huddle or talking as a group. Weber and her coaching staff are required to wear them.
Contact will be inevitable in a game situation.
“On the turf, I plan on giving each of them their area,” said Weber. “There isn’t a lot of activity-type things we can do (in Phase I). It will have to be individual stuff right now. When we start doing passing drills, we do get kind of close. My only worry is making sure they’re ready to go, so we don’t have injuries.
“I’ve already talked with our lady at Southwest Grafix about what kind of material we can use to make (masks) as breathable and lightweight as possible. I have a lot of girls with asthma, so that is another concern.”
Coaches are still left fretting the biggest question of the unknown: what happens when there is a positive case from a player or coach? It can’t statistically be avoided. The young are believed to be more immune to the brunt of the disease, but they can still pass it along to someone who isn’t. The odds increase in group settings and without wearing masks.
How does one socially distance in a contact sport, not really possible is it? Do football players wear plastic shields in their helmets? What if a player from school A has tested positive for COVID after a competition, do both teams now have restrictions? What if there is an increase in cases at school, will the games be called off?
What is the next step? All great questions with limited answers at the moment.
Game day: How will it look?
Final part of the equation is how a game environment will look. Again, more questions than answers at this point.
The first big test will come the weekend of Aug. 15. Several athletic directors theorized the football scrimmages — currently planned for the day prior — will be pushed back a day to allow fans to attend. They are brainstorming ideas concerning concessions (what food can you serve and how?) and dictating social distancing. All workers will most likely be required to wear masks and gloves.
Those in charge also know they can’t strictly watch hundreds or thousands of people. The larger stadiums will help but people don’t tend to stay still at a game.
“There’s no way we’ll be able to police them,” said Louden. “Say a group of 10 live together come and they’re not social distancing. I’m not gonna come up and ask them to spread out. We just have to trust our people that they social distance the best they can.
“My concern is, I hope that we don’t lose any athletes because of this. (Parents may) get nervous that they don’t want to put their kid in danger. We have to follow the guidelines given to us so that we can try to make it as safe for these kids.”
What about the players and coaches? For example, will volleyball or soccer players be required to wear masks on the sideline when not playing? And how quickly, because they’ll need time to catch their breath or drink water after strenuous exercise.
Athletes appear understanding of the restrictions in place. They’ve also been trusted to stay keep up with conditioning at home, but that won’t be the same for everyone. But they’re clinging to the optimistic side.
“I think the precautions will help, but it will (depend) more on the players’ work ethic outside of practices,” said Memorial rising senior Peyton Murphy, who plays soccer and basketball. “I’m just excited to play in general. I miss the competitive atmosphere and being with my team.”
All in due time. That’s part of the complication and thus the trepidation felt by many. But you also sense why the same people are optimistic. Sports provide an opportunity for everyone to forget and come together for single cause.
“It seems that this year, for the benefit and excitement generated, the games simply being played will be much more important than even the outcomes of those games,” Goebel said.
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