Should high school spring and fall sports seasons flip? Coaches weigh in
As surges in positive coronavirus cases flare up across the country and new high-exposure sites have been identified within Michigan, the unpredictable effect the virus has had on high school sports has raised plenty of concern. Official practice for fall sports is set to begin just over a month away for football on Aug. 10 and the rest of the season’s sports on Aug. 12, but that could all change at any moment.
One of the possible contingency plans being considered by the Michigan High School Athletic Association is to flip-flop the spring and fall sports seasons. The idea behind the plan is to give a high-contact sport like football – and indoor sports like volleyball and girls swimming – a chance to be played after what many hope to be the end of the pandemic in the spring of 2021. If a vaccine arrives before next spring, it will ease or eliminate the pressing concerns of spreading COVID-19 between players, coaches, officials and personnel in sports competition.
The idea to switch fall and spring seasons was thrust into the spotlight in Michigan last week when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recommended the MHSAA should consider the idea.
MHSAA media and content coordinator Geoff Kimmerly said the current plan is to proceed with fall sports as usual. However, given the fluid nature of the pandemic’s management, Kimmerly said swapping seasons is a contingency plan being considered.
“Right now, we are looking to have fall (sports) in the fall, but if numbers — by numbers I mean cases and guidelines from the health department — if those things dictate that we need to switch things up, we’re going to be nimble and we’re going to be creative,” Kimmerly told MLive last week.
While there is understanding and even some support for the idea, the growing consensus among spring and fall high school coaches appears to be that both groups would rather not change the seasons. For various reasons, some coaches are more against it than others.
Spring coaches already missed a full season of action and are hoping they aren’t forced to regroup in the fall with the threat of another shutdown looming. Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett baseball coach Dan Cimini has already experienced a spring without baseball and does not want another season to be thrust into the forefront of the pandemic.
“I wouldn’t be in favor of it,” Cimini said. “Because if there’s a chance there’s going to be a shutdown anytime during the fall here because of the coronavirus … if they flip-flopped the seasons, that’s back-to-back spring sports losing their seasons. That can’t happen. That cannot happen.”
West Bloomfield football coach Ron Bellamy is also an assistant track and field in the spring, and he can understand the concerns of all spring coaches.
“The kids who played spring sports, they had a season interrupted already – it didn’t start,” Bellamy said. “Me coaching track, I felt bad for our seniors who lost their senior year. Spring sports should be play in the spring.”
Should the seasons flip, Bellamy expressed concerns with having a football season in the spring followed by another football season in the fall.
“If you did play football in the spring, when do you start in the fall again?” Bellamy said. “We’ve never had a turnaround so quickly. We worry about those things.”
For Cimini and other spring coaches, the opposite problem arises if the spring season is moved to the fall as those teams would have to wait 16 months until their next season in 2022. Plus, if the spring does get canceled in the fall, it would mean some players would have gone three full calendar years in between seasons, having played in the spring of 2019 and not again until 2022.
“Can you imagine missing another season?” Cimini said. “Then you don’t play for a whole ‘nother year again – even more than that. I know there is going to be a vaccine coming out in December or January, there has to be from what I’m hearing. We’ll play spring sports, and this will die down and everyone could play three seasons.”
Last Ditch Effort
Despite the uncertainty, especially with football, the MHSAA has been trying to communicate with athletic directors and coaches on a regular basis. Clinton Township Chippewa Valley coach Scott Merchant was in on a Zoom meeting that involved MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl and members of the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association.
According to Merchant, Uyl said the MHSAA’s main objective is to keep fall sports in the fall and make sure there are three full seasons. Beyond that, the MSHAA will discuss modifying seasons as necessary, whether that means shortened or flipped seasons.
Like Bellamy, Merchant holds similar concerns when it comes to playing in the fall of 2021.
“As far as playing football in the spring, I mean I guess that is a last resort so the kids get (a season),” Merchant said. “I really don’t see a whole lot of problems with for this year for doing that. My biggest concern – and I think most coaches’ concern is – when you turn around in August 2021, six weeks removed from finishing a season … you need time physically to heal up and recover from a season, especially if you make a deep run in the playoffs.”
Davison football coach Jake Weingartz was in on the meeting as well, noting the MHSAA will likely stay on course for fall as usual with some notable safety precautions in place.
“Their plan right now is to have the normal three (fall) seasons,” Weingartz said. “Obviously, there will be some changes – 10-yard line to 10-yard line, coaches have to wear masks and players have to wear face shields. Every single player has to have their own water bottle. They’re talking about extending the length of timeouts, so you have time to find your own water bottle.”
Parma Western football coach Dave Mifsud came away from the meeting feeling more optimistic about the fall remaining unchanged this year.
“I think moving the football season to the spring is kind of the last-ditch effort to save the season and not the only option on the table,” Misfud said. “The more likely option is a condensed regular season this fall with some modifications and adjustments. Whether that’s only playing a handful of games and then every team makes the playoffs or changing the playoff qualifications altogether, there should be a few different avenues for us to take without having to uproot everything to move to the spring.”
Who Will Be Around?
Another concern football coaches have revolves around recruiting and the negative impacts it could have on a player and a team’s roster.
Bellamy is one of many football coaches in the Detroit area who has multiple NCAA Division I recruits on his roster. For the players in the 2021 class, some of them have made plans to enroll early at their respective colleges or universities in December. If the football was moved to the spring, some of the football teams with top talent would find themselves having to fill crucial holes in their gameday lineups.
Bellamy has 2021 running back Donovan Edwards – a four-star recruit with 46 offers – set to play his senior season this fall. Although uncommitted, Bellamy said Edwards has plans to graduate early in December in order to get a head start in joining his program. If the football season was moved to the spring, it would force athletes to make a choice of playing their senior season or get an early start on their college dreams.
“The reality of it is, a guy like Donovan Edwards who is a consensus top two or three running back in the nation, him and I had that discussion when there was the rumor that football was going to get moved to the spring, potentially. I told Donovan, his goal was to win a state championship his senior year, graduate in December and enroll in January. We’re going to keep that same thing going. He just won’t be able to play his senior year … I’m not going to support you coming back to play your last year in the spring when you should be enrolled in college, getting your credits and starting your future.”
Detroit Cass Tech football coach Tom Wilcher is in the same boat, boasting plenty of players who intend or could opt to graduate early.
“I’ve got a lot of kids planning to enroll early,” Wilcher said. “If the kids decide to stay and play (in the spring), it would be good. If the kids decide to go, it would be good. I think a lot of kids want to stay and play their last year. I think if we can get the kids to play and stay the last year, that would be great. But you will have a lot of kids trying to leave early. That would be the worst part about it.”
On top of that, Detroit Martin Luther King coach Tyrone Spencer noted that if all his college-bound seniors do play in the spring, they would have to join the intense college practices immediately following the high school season.
“That’s not fair to them,” Spencer said. “It’s not fair to them if they get an injury and they have to go right into college and play the season right now. Then, it’s just not fair to turn back around for the high school team and have to practice for the fall season. I just don’t think that’s fair and there’s a lot of things that I don’t see working out with it.”
Bellamy also raised the concern of recruitment for the players still looking to earn offers. If football is moved to the spring in Michigan and not elsewhere, how many college programs will still have roster spots available after a spring football season? Would schools not bother recruiting Michigan in the spring?
“You look at the schools like Michigan, Ohio State, Clemson and these teams with great recruiting classes, they’re not going to be willing to move the signing day period. They’re still going to want that December signing day period so they can lock them in. What are you going to do with the other seniors in your class who haven’t signed anywhere? Scholarships are going to be full and it’ll be much different for us and harder for those kids. How will they get evaluated in the spring?”
Biting the Bullet
What coaches can agree on is that there is no perfect solution moving forward. With all the obstacles provided by the coronavirus, someone will have to bite the bullet. Fall and spring sports will just have to roll with the punches until they can’t anymore.
As far as Cimini is concerned as he hopes to coach a full baseball season this next school year, spring sports teams have already bitten the bullet.
“First of all, there’s no scenario that’s a good one,” Cimini said. “But, in retrospect, as a coach who just went through this and was devastated for these seniors who weren’t able to play spring sports and play their seasons out, if someone has to bite the bullet, it’s going to have to be these fall sports because we already bit the bullet once.”
Warren Regina athletic director Diane Laffey was supposed to coach her 50th softball season this last spring before it got canceled after one week of official practice. Looking at the unprecedented scenario facing the MHSAA and its members across the state, Laffey said this is a nightmare problem to solve. Like many others, Laffey said she does not want to see a change in the sports seasons. However, she understands the difficulty in finding a solution in a situation like this.
“No matter how you look at it, it’s not going to be good no matter what happens, I don’t think,” Laffey said. “There’s so many different things to look at that I don’t even know what you could focus on right now.”
Laffey also brought up the issues of getting game officials if spring sports are moved to the fall, noting a short scheduling window and the fact that many older officials might not be willing to risk their health to be at a game. In the winter, a basketball official died after it was expected he contracted the coronavirus from officiating a district tournament game. One of his fellow referees caught the virus too but recovered.
“There’s just so many things to consider,” Laffey said. “My hope is fall can be fall, winter can be winter and spring can be spring. Even if you have to push them back to where spring ends in July, I mean, so what? You know, just give the kids a chance to have three seasons … I would not want to have to make the decision, believe me. I’m sure (Uyl) is torn because he’s a really good guy I can’t imagine this is easy for him. No way you are going to be able to please everybody.”
Brandon Jiles coaches both Oak Park cross country and girls track and field. He is yet another coach against the idea of flipping season, although he decidedly more against the idea than others. According to Jiles, flipping track and field to the fall would be a much bigger change than most realize.
“It’s a bad idea,” Jiles said. “There’s no way around it. The weather in the fall is not for track. It’s more suited for cross country. The rest of the country isn’t doing the flipped season, so we would be at a disadvantage for our kids in recruiting. We’ll be at a disadvantage weather wise later on. It wouldn’t serve the cross country kids justice to not be able to compete during their season.
“I know we’re dealing with a pandemic, obviously, but at the end of the day we have to figure out a way to live with this thing and protect ourselves even with going on with … a different version of normal life.”
Jiles went as far to say that his track team might not even compete if the season is moved to the fall, noting it messes with periodization of an athlete’s training and some of the top programs from across the country won’t be competing on the same schedule.
“I’m totally against it,” Jiles added. “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Even if the fall goes ahead as planned, football coaches are currently limited to what they can do. While it’s easier for sports like cross country and tennis to abide by social distancing rules, Merchant mentioned his conditioning sessions have turned into glorified “fitness club.”
Bringing the weights outside, football coaches are not allowed to do contact drills or have 7-on-7 sessions. Meanwhile, football teams in Ohio are taking part in full-contact practices, although certain precautions must be followed.
“How do we go from being able to play two-hand touch football right now to playing real football and tackle and block people and put people on the ground?” Merchant said. “What’s going to change between now and Aug. 10?”
After seeing the end of the previous winter sports season and the entirety of the previous spring sports competition season gets canceled, Spencer is preparing to bite the same bullet that Cimini already tasted.
“If we started the season and had to suspend it and then resume, I would accept that,” Spencer said. “If we started the season and we had to resume or couldn’t finish it, it is what it is. I just don’t like the switch. I think it’s interfering with too many things.”
According to Laffey, all that can be done is coaches, athletes and the general population must play their part for schools to experience anything close to a normal sports year.
“Wear your mask, social distance,” Laffey said. “Let’s get through this spike and get it over with.”