Outdoor girls volleyball? 7-on-7 football?
They could be part of the fall scholastic sports season, should a season ultimately come to pass.
As the CIAC works with the Connecticut Department of Public Health to find a way to play fall sports amid the coronavirus pandemic, moving volleyball outside and shifting football to the no-tackle, 7-on-7 format of summer passing leagues were among the recommendations the health department gave the CIAC on Sunday.
Sunday, for the proverbial day of rest, was a busy one in the ever-developing story of Connecticut high school sports 2020, one that is testing the emotions and patience of coaches and athletes.
The CIAC, after meeting with its Board of Control on Sunday night, announced cohort conditioning could resume Monday. The CIAC also announced non-contact skill practice would start this Saturday and — in a decision that raised the most eyebrows — decreed that any sport not played this fall would not be played at any time during the 2020-21 school year.
That closed the door on the option of a “floating season” that some other states, such as Massachusetts, have set up for late winter/early spring for football and any other sport that gets canceled this fall.
At the same time, scrapping the idea of a floating season reaffirmed the CIAC’s belief that, given the state’s low COVID-19 case numbers, now is the time to play to high school sports in Connecticut, and that waiting for a more fortuitous time might be in vain.
The CIAC and state Department of Public Health are expected to issue their verdict on the fall season Wednesday. The two agencies are trying to bridge the differences in the CIAC plan unveiled July 30 and the DPH response on August 13 that, along with recommending 11-on-11 football and indoor volleyball not be played this fall, advised no sports start at all until schools have been opened for two weeks.
That discrepancy brought a halt to the cohort conditioning that had been going on since July 6 and had allowed teams to work out in groups of 10. The DPH, in its Sunday letter, gave the green light for that conditioning to resume and encouraged the CIAC to continue it throughout the season.
However, there was a caveat: Keep the cohort number at 10. The CIAC, in its fall plan, intended to increase the cohort number to 15 on August 17 for football and August 27 for all other sports, then start full-team practices on Sept. 11, with a shortered regular season commencing Sept. 24.
That time frame has been pushed back at least week, even with practices starting on Saturday.
For now, some area teams are waiting for Wednesday’s word from the CIAC and DPH before deciding how they’ll jump into the season. Some jumped right back into cohort conditioning on Monday, such as Maloney football.
And just about everyone, after several weeks of shifting story lines and back-and-forth proposals, is eager for a final decision to be handed down.
“Everyone understands it; everyone understands the concerns out there,” said Maloney athletic director Bob McKee. “I think everyone just wants to have more clarity of which direction are we going?”
“You want to look at it from a mental and emotional view? My kids are beaten down right now,” Platt football coach Jason Bruenn said. “I think I’m beaten down. Mentally, emotionally: I don’t do this. I’m not a wishy-washy type of guy. There’s a rule, there’s a schedule and you follow those. That’s what these people don’t understand. If I have to hear the word ‘fluid’ one more time I think I might smack somebody.
“I’m tired of hearing the word ‘fluid.’ Make a decision and go with it,” Bruenn said. “If it’s the wrong decision, we’ll know real quick.”
“I think we’re all waiting for Wednesday to see how everything falls,” said Bruenn’s athletic director at Platt, Rich Katz. “At least the kids are getting conditioning now, which was today, and we’re on a wait-and-see. The CIAC has tried to do as many things as they can to help us. I think it’s up to the health department to give us the approval.”
The CIAC is asking the DPH to reconsider its call on football and volleyball. Other than that, the two agencies aren’t that far apart.
“With the exception of girls’ volleyball and football, DPH agrees with your most recent proposed schedule for the start of full team practices and competitions,” Deidre Gifford, the health department’s acting commissioner, wrote to the CIAC on Sunday. “We also recommend coordination and collaboration at the district level given the potential variations in back to school plans across the state.”
That touches upon a wrinkle that makes this issue even more complex. School reopening plans vary from town to town, in terms of both timing and format.
Plus, some districts have already made pre-emptive decisions on sports. Nonnewaug, which incorporates Woodbury and Bethlehem, has canceled its fall season. Danbury, with COVID-19 cases flaring in that city, announced Monday it is putting high school sports on hold for two weeks. Coventry made the same decision last week.
Above all, every school district in the state faces a monumental task in just launching the school year.
“It is a bit of scramble,” said Cheshire athletic director Steve Trifone. “The emphasis is getting the school up and running. Trying to get athletics in adds more confusion for our coaches and athletes.”
Football took a double-hit Sunday with the scrapping of the “floating season” and the proposed 7-on-7 format. The CIAC’s Football Committee, by a 9-1 vote on August 10, had recommended shifting football to the spring, but the CIAC Board of Control rejected that suggestion two days later when it reaffirmed its commitment to the six-game fall season outlined in its July 30 plan.
If football can only be played in the fall, and in a 7-on-7 format, coaches say, a lot of players are going to miss out.
“Everybody has separate offenses and defenses,” Bruenn said. “So we bring 10 offensive kids and 10 defensive kids. What’s the other half of my team supposed to do? What are the linemen supposed to do?
“What is Greenwich High School do?” Bruenn continued. “They have 100 kids on their varsity and another 40-50 in their freshman program. What are they supposed to do? ‘Sorry, 120 of you can’t do anything right now.’ It’s absurd.”
“That is a whole different perspective on how we do things,” Trifone said of the DPH football recommendation. “Seven versus seven football doesn’t include linemen or kickers. Do they become receivers? Is it two-hand touch or flag football? We need more information, as we go along.”
Likewise, moving volleyball outdoors prompts a number of questions. Can it be played on grass? On turf? What nets would be used? How would the court be marked?
Cheshire has an outdoor sand court, but not many other schools do. Besides, even Cheshire’s sand court is for the smaller two-person game.
“I’m not quite sure if all of the teams are able to play outdoors. The nets are different and so is the game,” said Cheshire volleyball coach Sue Bavone. “Not everybody has the field space to play outdoors. A lot of schools share their fields with everybody else.”
For athletic directors, finding a way to have a fall season will require a healthy dose of both pragmatism and creativity.
“There will be more questions than there are answers or solutions to begin with, but we owe it to these kids to do everything we can to look at what’s being proposed and make every effort to see if we can have a fall sports experience,” said Southington AD Steve Risser. “I think everyone recognizes some of the things we may be asked to do are certainly out of the ordinary, but that’s what 2020 is all about at this point.”
Indeed, scholastic sports loom as the next societal adaptation to the pandemic. As Southington volleyball coach Rich Heitz pointed out, ZOOM calls, so rare before March, have become the norm in the work place. High schools now have a chance to move outside the box.
“This whole pandemic has been a challenge to all of us. It’s been interesting and intriguing how individuals have adapted and changed,” Heitz said. “Sometimes things like this present opportunities to do something better. I think in the long run there’s something to be said about that, about the importance of trying to adapt to challenging situations. There’s a lot of ingenuity out there that can solve a lot of problems in the world.”