CHESHIRE — In looking to bring high school sports back amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference has emphasized the importance of a gradual process that can change on a daily basis.
To close out this week, state schools learned that they had moved one key step closer to returning to regular-season competition on Oct. 1.
On Friday, the CIAC sent out an email to athletic directors informing them that schools could move from cohorts to full-team practices as part of phase two of their sports plan. The move goes into effect starting on Monday.
“I think teams are ready to move forward,” said Cheshire Athletic Director Steve Trifone. “The athletes and coaches have been making sure to follow the safety guidelines.”
In Friday’s email, the CIAC writes that the plan is fluid and in a perpetual state of evaluation. The CIAC added that COVID-19 health data in Connecticut will continue to be monitored.
“I feel good about where we are with everything,” stated Maloney Athletic Director Bob McKee. “The CIAC is in close contact with their Sports Medicine Committee.”
In factoring in recommendation letters from the Connecticut Department of Public Health, the CIAC Board of Control has made multiple changes to its original fall plan, including taking a 10-day pause from in-person conditioning activities from Aug. 14 to Aug. 24.
In the current model, teams started non-contact workouts in cohorts of 10 athletes on Aug. 29. The hour-long sessions, consisting of conditioning and skill work, were slated to run through Sept. 20, so that the CIAC had time to evaluate health data from two weeks of in-person school instruction and then see if full-team practices could begin on Sept. 21.
In being given the green light to move forward next week, soccer, girls volleyball, field hockey, cross country, and girls swim and dive teams will be able to extend their practices to 90 minutes from Sept. 21 to Sept. 25. From Sept. 26 to Oct. 1, teams can practice for 120 minutes and can scrimmage in preparation for an Oct. 1 opening day.
McKee feels that Maloney athletes and coaches have earned the opportunity to move forward.
“It is different not having your same kind of practices, but the kids want to be out there,” explained McKee. “This (new phase) will allow the coaches to get into more of the details to prepare for their first games.”
Starting Monday, area teams can engage in full contact. In Cheshire, Trifone is telling his coaches that contact should be quick in drills.
Teams will need to follow safety guidelines, including volleyball players wearing a face covering at all practices and matches.
“It is matter of the girls getting used to playing with masks on,” said Trifone. “If they can play, we are all for it. After long rallies, we will call for a mask break, so the girls can put the mask down and get a drink of water.”
At Wilcox Tech, after a few weeks of practicing outdoors, the girls volleyball team is preparing to go inside for the first time and start adjusting to wearing masks.
“If I had a vote, I would say ‘no mask,’ but if we need it to play the season, we will do it,” said Wilcox Tech Athletic Director Steve Wodarski.
Field hockey, soccer and girls volleyball teams can start their first scrimmages on Sept. 26. Including girls swim and dive and cross country, the plan is for teams to start competing officially on Oct. 1 and play up to 12 contests in the regular season. A tournament experience could follow in November.
The CIAC is recommending that no spectators be allowed at contests, but adds that schools should consult with their respective district’s local department of health.
Trifone said that there won’t be spectators in the pool or gym in Cheshire. A decision on the outdoor sports has yet to be made.
“I think most schools aren’t going to allow spectators, especially visiting fans, because it is easier to control. No one wants to have to tell someone to leave a contest,” explained Trifone. “I think it would be good to have consistency in whether schools allow fans or not.”
Wilcox Tech has already made the decision to not have fans at contests.
“It has been a long process for us to get here and we don’t want to jeopardize the fall season,” Wodarski explained.
In the case of football, the CIAC Board of Control on Wednesday canceled the 11-on-11 tackle season for the fall, but starting next week teams will be ble to practice as a full team with no contact between people.
The CIAC had come up with strategies to try to lower the risk of football, but DPH and the National Federation of High Schools stuck to their recommendations that football is a high-risk sport. Executive Director Glenn Lungarini said that the CIAC had exhausted all avenues to hold a fall season.
“It is disappointing what happened to their season,” stated McKee. “I feel bad for the athletes and the coaches. As a district, we support our team.”
While canceling tackle football in 2020, the CIAC did say it would consider allowing a sport to be moved from its regularly scheduled season to a later date in the school year as long as it does not negatively impact spring sports.
Over a Zoom call on Wednesday, Lungarini stated that the CIAC, in conjunction with its football committee, hoped to come up with low- to moderate-risk activities for the fall by the end of this week, such as 7-on-7 and lineman challenges, but no plans have been formally announced yet.
Schools do have the option of playing football as a non-sanctioned club sport, but any plan would need to be approved by local public health organizations. Private leagues are also forming to allow athletes to play football this fall.
“We are going to look at all options for our kids,” said Southington football coach Mike Drury. “We are fighting for everything we can.”