The sun was up, the humidity down and, under normal circumstances on a such a picture-perfect Thursday in late August, Southington football player Weston Brick knows what he’d be doing.
“I’d be waking up and having practice today,” the senior defensive back said. “I’d be on the field around 2 p.m., practicing for four hours — as much time as we can.”
Instead of hitting the turf of Fontana Field, Brick and about 20 of his Southington teammates, along with some players who had driven in from West Hartford, Danbury and Fairfield, were in the parking lot of the CIAC offices on Realty Drive in Cheshire.
They were telling CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini why it’s so important for them to have some kind of a season this fall — a season that grew in uncertainty last week when the CIAC, acting on the recommendation of the state Department of Public Health, hit the pause button on preseason conditioning that was supposed to start Monday for football and this Wednesday for all other fall sports.
Lungarini and the CIAC had a meeting scheduled for Thursday night, Aug. 20, to hash things out with officials and doctors from the Department of Public Health, a meeting that led to a decision to restart activities this week but still left the overall fall schedule in general, and the fate of football and volleyball in particular, up in the air.
A final decision was expected sometime this week.
In the meantime, Lungarini leant his ears to the teenagers. He’d invited them down after Southington quarterback Brady Lafferty emailed last Tuesday requesting the CIAC hear first-hand from the athletes who would be affected by whatever decision is ultimately made.
Thursday’s gathering was far smaller and less raucous than the one that descended upon Realty Drive in mid-March the day after the CIAC canceled the winter state tournaments in the face of the rising coronavirus pandemic. Thursday’s gathering also reflected the new reality ushered in by the past five months. Everybody wore a mask.
Thursday was, as Lafferty termed it, a “peaceful protest.” It found a receptive audience.
“We are going to support you no matter what comes out of this,” Lungarini told the athletes. “If the determination is we can’t play a sport or particular sports, we will not give up on you. We know how much sport means to you.”
Later, talking to the media, Lungarini said, “These kids were incredibly articulate today; I don’t think anything was rehearsed from what they said. You could see the emotion in their voice, you could see the passion they have for the sports that they play … and for their teammates and how much being connected with their school and their community through their teams actually means to them.”
Bottom line: the CIAC and the athletes who showed up on Thursday are of one accord. Both groups believe that given the low COVID-19 infection numbers in Connecticut, which rank among the best of the nation, and given the safety protocols high school athletes have been following since the CIAC allowed conditioning practices in small cohorts to begin on July 6, the time to play is now.
“We’re taking precautions,” Southington linebacker Ryan Walsh said in a one-on-one interview. “We walk in with masks, we walk out with masks. When we don’t have masks on, we’re a safe distance away. We make sure we abide by the rules the state gave out. We just want to play.”
Not long after, Lungarini told the assembled group, “From the start of this, the CIAC has always (said), ‘When the time is right, Connecticut will play again.’ We believe that for the majority of the state, the time is right.”
But, of course, it’s not that simple. The CIAC, unlike the NBA, does not operate in a bubble. It must dovetail its sport plan with its member schools in Connecticut wrestling with how to best teach kids coming back to class and those opting for distance learning, all while maintaining social distancing and keeping buildings even cleaner than normal.
Last week, the Department of Health asked the CIAC to halt the start of the fall season until two weeks after school begins. The DPH also advised the CIAC to postpone football and girls volleyball to late winter/early spring.
Hence Thursday night’s meeting at the CIAC office. Lungarini and his group want to learn why the DPH, which had previously been OK with the fall sports plan the CIAC had unveiled in late July, now has reservations.
Lungarini did say he was expecting an “open and professional conversation” with an agency that he credited with doing so much to drive down COVID-19 cases in Connecticut.
“DPH has been an incredible partner throughout,” Lungarini told reporters. “There’s no tension, there’s no animosity between any of us walking into tonight. The position that they held in support of our plan from July 24 to August 13 changed. We don’t question that they had a change. What we need to understand better is why.”
The CIAC has other questions. The state allowed recreational sports to resume in the summer as part of its Phase 2 reopening plan. Infection numbers remain low, so why the concern for high school sports?
Football and volleyball have been singled out. If it’s OK for club volleyball teams to play indoors, the CIAC wants to know, why doesn’t the same hold true for scholastic teams?
Volleyball is considered a “moderate” risk sport like soccer and field hockey. Cross country and swimming (individual races, not relays) are the fall sports deemed low risk.
Football is the lone high-risk sport of the upcoming season, the one the CIAC knew it would have to discuss more with the DPH even when its fall plan met with approval in late July.
“When we put out our original resocialization, we were talking about August 31 as a date to evaluate high-risk sport competition, which would fall right in line with where we are,” Lungarini said Thursday. “High-risk sports, regardless of tonight’s conversation, need to continue to be a topic of discussion because all of our winter sports are high risk.”
Football players know their sport is the most endangered of the fall season. Fourteen states have already postponed football to late winter/early spring, Massachusetts becoming the latest on Wednesday, and Vermont has shifted to the 7-on-7 game seen in summer passing leagues.
7-on-7 is considered moderate risk because there is no tackling. Would it be an option if regular football isn’t a go in Connecticut?
“It’s not the best opportunity because it leaves linemen, the unsung heroes of the football world, without a place,” Lungarini replied. “But if we can continue kids with conditioning, maybe we can safely run a combine, maybe there’s opportunities we can safely run some other experiences throughout the fall when the metrics are very good and supportive. It would give our kids some exposure, understanding football is unique in that this is the only opportunity for kids to get looks from college coaches.”
Under the current CIAC plan, football teams would play six games this fall. The other sports are scheduled for 12. All regular-season games, which would run from late September through October, would be against local rivals to reduce travel. A “tournament experience” would follow in the first two weeks of November.
In the meantime, time is getting tight. Given that CIAC sports have been shut down since March, the organization’s medical advisors recommended an extended conditioning period of three weeks. The CIAC incorporated that into its July plan.
Starting conditioning in late August has teams on course to commence full-squad practices Sept. 11, leading to a Sept. 24 start of the season.
All of that gets squeezed if the DPH insists sports remain in dry dock until two weeks after school starts.
So much hinged on Thursday night’s meeting. Lungarini was expecting to debrief the CIAC’s Board of Control on Friday.
“Hopefully, after tonight, we’ll be able to understand better where DPH is and that will help us determine what sort of time frame we may need moving forward,” he said. “We want to do it as quickly as possible, but we also don’t want to rush something where there’s another change.”
That said, giving the ever-shifting shape of the pandemic, Lungarini acknowledged no plan is ever really set in stone.
“We have to just be willing to accept that metrics and information are going to change on a daily basis, but we want as much as possible to give a definitive direction to our kids, our coaches and our schools on how they can proceed in the fall.”
The kids know what direction in which they want to head. It’s the path they’re already on.
“I think we all comprehend what’s going on, the severity of the situation, but at the same time we know that we’re being safe around each other,” said Walsh, the Southington linebacker. “Our community has put up guidelines. Everyone’s been pretty solid on following the rules. So while we know it’s dangerous, we know we’re being safe and think we’ll be able to play.”