What will the IHSA Board of Directors do Wednesday morning — beginning at 8:30 a.m. sharp, according to IHSA spokesman Matt Troha — when its participants meet to discuss the fate of high school fall sports in Illinois in 2020?
It’s a question shrouded in speculation.
About what choice will be made.
About who truly is making it, since the IHSA earlier this month deferred to the Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinois State Board of Education on future “Return To Play” plan decisions.
And about if yet another prep athletics campaign, following the cancellation of the 2020 spring sports state series, will be thrown off course by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Coaches around the area and state are waiting to hear what the plans will be this fall.
The News-Gazette asked some local fall sports coaches to offer their thoughts on potential scenarios the IHSA board might consider:
- Running fall sports as scheduled;
- Delaying the season’s start date, slated for Aug. 10, by about a month or so;
- Flipping the calendar to have some fall sports contested in spring and some spring sports played in fall;
- Postponing all activities through the end of the 2020 calendar year.
These options were presented to coaches because there’s precedent for them being used by different high school sports organizations around the nation. Here’s what they had to say on the eve of the latest significant pandemic-related decision to come from the IHSA.
Jake Palmer, Fisher football coach
Palmer leaned more toward flipping the calendar and postponing the 2020 football campaign until spring, though his thoughts weren’t so clear-cut as to outright declare his favor of one option.
On shifting sports deemed higher risk for the spread of COVID-19 because of their physical nature — football, volleyball and boys’ soccer — from the fall to the spring and putting some lower-risk spring sports in the fall, Palmer said he’s “a little bit disappointed that hasn’t gained more traction earlier.”
“It’s a very viable option,” Palmer said. “It seems like every weekend I drive by a baseball or a softball field, there’s teams playing there. ... Those are some of those sports you can stay away from your opponents and also your teammates.”
But Palmer fears it may be too late to implement this strategy.
“It’s going to be very challenging for athletic directors and the schools and transportation departments to try and flip those schedules and get games and umpires or officials together,” said Palmer, who recently stepped down as the Bunnies’ athletic director. “It’s something I think would’ve been great had they looked into it earlier in the summer.”
Palmer also used the word “viable” to describe his thoughts on postponing fall sports, saying it would give state officials more time to learn about the virus and better combat it.
“Now, do I look at having an eight-week football season where we get to play five or six games as ideal? No, I do not,” Palmer said. “But would I take five or six games for some of these kids who wouldn’t get the chance to play otherwise? Oh, absolutely.”
Palmer doesn’t see a minor delay to the fall sports season’s opening day as feasible at this moment, given “COVID cases are on the rise” in various areas and a one-month pushback “gets you closer to cold and flu season as well.”
And he’s not optimistic fall sports start on time.
“There are many professional leagues who it’s taken a long time to get up and running the last couple weeks, that have a lot more resources than our high schools do at this point,” Palmer said. “That would be a surprise (to have the season as scheduled).”
Abby McDonald, St. Joseph-Ogden volleyball coach
The reigning News-Gazette All-Area volleyball Coach of the Year said she is hesitant to flip fall sports with spring sports on the calendar simply for the fact spring sport athletes missed out on their seasons earlier in 2020.
“Our athletes that compete in the spring already lost one season,” she said, “and it would be hard to see them go through that again.”
McDonald, like other coaches around the area and state, is attempting to balance her desire to resume activities with a hope that as many people as possible avoid contracting or spreading COVID-19.
“I don’t know what is best for our program in terms of an upcoming season,” said McDonald, who is 316-72 in 12 seasons at SJ-O and guided the Spartans to third place in Class 2A last season. “My primary focus is that our players and families are able to remain healthy and safe. Our program will support and make the best of whatever the IHSA feels is necessary to ensure the safety of our student-athletes.”
James Barkley, Urbana boys’ soccer coach
Barkley indicated he’s comfortable with activities taking place in some capacity, as he believes “there will be potential exposure no matter how restricted the training or competition.”
“Let’s do what we can to serve the kids best at this point,” Barkley said. “The spring season double-up idea — playing fall sports and spring sports in the spring — has legs. Just don’t take it all away this fall.”
Barkley does want stringent precautions taken, however, in order to ensure as much safety as possible while events take place.
“Players should be required to be tested weekly and masked temperature checks performed at all player check-ins, whether training or competition,” Barkley said. “Further, weekly testing should be offered at schools, perhaps administered by athletic trainers. This would provide greater access for all student-athletes and further confirm they are actually being tested.”
A big reason Barkley — who is about to start his third season in charge of the Tigers — is attracted to the idea of letting kids compete is based on knowing what they tend to derive from athletic experiences.
“None of the protocols is fail-safe, but there is real reward for the risk of exposure that is implicit in allowing high school athletes to train and/or compete together,” Barkley said. “Our restricted trainings at Urbana this summer have been extremely beneficial for the student-athletes mentally, physically and emotionally. I have received e-mails from parents that our summer trainings have been a saving grace for themselves and their players’ mental health and well-being.”
Alan Dodds, St. Thomas More girls’ golf coach
The defending two-time News-Gazette All-Area girls’ golf Coach of the Year also has past history as a high school football official.
With one a no-contact sport and the other high contact, Dodds’ thoughts diverge for these two ventures.
“There’s a lot of reasons why it would work perfectly well to play golf this fall,” Dodds said. “It’s safe for the girls to play competitive golf, and I’ve got a team full of girls that’s excited to be able to compete very soon.
“As a football official, I have mixed feelings. I’m anxious for football to be played. I recognize that with contact and with the number of people that touch the ball on any one given play, there are some additional risks. I’m cognizant of the fact there’s a lot of coaches and a lot of officials that are a little bit older and are at that age where they may be more vulnerable to the virus.”
Dodds kept an open mind regarding the other three options, but he expressed concerns with each. On a delayed start to the season, Dodds said “it would be a very short season for us in golf. ... I guess it would be better than nothing, but it wouldn’t feel much like a real golf season.”
The 2020 girls’ golf season currently is scheduled to run from Aug. 10 until Oct. 17.
On flipping sports, Dodds said that “golf seems to me to be maybe one of the safest sports, and so I think it would be hard to justify moving it to the spring.”
And on postponement, Dodds said he’d be “OK with that” because his team features many one-sport athletes, though playing conditions could present ample problems.
“If you’re going to finish by the end of May, that means you’re starting some competition in late March,” Dodds said. “In late March the weather can be pretty questionable, so it’d be kind of tough to get the season started.”
Katie VanHootegem, Champaign Central girls’ swimming coach
VanHootegem said if her swimmers are allowed to compete, she anticipates only a dual meet schedule and no invitationals, to prevent gatherings larger than the 50-person limit currently allowed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
Beyond that, VanHootegem feels swimming can take place during the pandemic without changing too much.
“Swimming would be easy to socially distance because the lane lines are mandated to be 6 feet apart for arm spans,” VanHootegem said. “We would eliminate anyone using the locker rooms to make sure there would be no points of contact there. They would arrive in their suit and leave in their suit. We would have swimmers at both ends to appropriately distance.”
The only option of the four that VanHootegem fully rejected was postponement for the rest of 2020, specifically because of facility limitations.
“That would not work well for swimming in our area because we share a pool with the Centennial girls’ team,” VanHootegem said. “Then you also have the Central boys’ team and Centennial boys’ team. There would be no way to make the pool accessible to all.”