BLOOMINGTON — Even though IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson is pleased with how member schools have handled his organization’s “Return To Play” plan, he told The News-Gazette this week that fall sports state championships are still off the table.
On Sept. 23, the IHSA Board of Directors approved the addition of sectional events to the golf and cross-country postseason lineups. Those sports were previously only planning on having regional tournaments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while girls’ tennis and girls’ swimming and diving would only hold sectional meets. That decision has led athletes and coaches to speculate on whether the IHSA would consider allowing state tournaments to happen, after all.
“Our board’s decision when we modified and added the sectionals was that that would be the culminating experience,” Anderson said. “We wouldn’t move into state championships. There’s just a number of roadblocks at this point that makes it challenging, and our board had already decided they wouldn’t revisit adding state championships.”
Boys’ and girls’ golf regional tournaments took place this week, and that sport’s sectional tournaments will transpire next week along with girls’ tennis sectional meets. Cross-country regional meets and girls’ swimming and diving sectional meets are slated for Oct. 24, and cross-country sectional meets can take place in the Oct. 29-31 timeframe.
An unsanctioned high school state cross-country series, co-hosted by ShaZam Racing and MileSplit Illinois, is scheduled for Nov. 6-7 in Chillicothe. None of the other ongoing fall sports presently have a similar event on tap.
Changes were made to golf and cross-country regional tournaments in order to limit the number of sectional qualifiers and better adhere to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s pandemic-related gathering limitations.
In golf regionals, the top two teams and top four individuals not on those teams — down from three teams and 10 individuals, respectively — moved on to a sectional. In cross-country, the top five teams from the regional — down from seven — will move forward to a sectional, along with an unchanged top five individuals not on those teams.
No alterations exist for the girls’ tennis or girls’ swimming and diving sectional structures, though the state’s indoor rule gathering of no more than 50 people will make for different-looking swim and dive sectional meets than in years past.
Anderson said people have reached out to the IHSA office asking why the group couldn’t oversee state series events in those fall sports.
“In order to maintain the gathering limits, we’d have to be so restrictive with the qualifiers, with the gathering numbers, that it just isn’t feasible,” Anderson said. “We made the decision early on, and we’ve kind of released any of our hosts from that possibility. The travel and trying to reduce or eliminate overnight stays would be an incredible challenge (as well).”
That said, Anderson believes the fashion in which the IHSA’s revised fall season has proceeded — despite the postponement of football, volleyball and boys’ soccer to the spring as well as the loss of state tournaments — could help Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health feel more confident in the IHSA’s ability to run other athletic campaigns.
In July, the IHSA began deferring to Pritzker and the IDPH with regard to its “Return To Play” guidelines.
“Providing opportunities in the low-risk sports has went incredibly well,” Anderson said. “While I’m sure there have been a few hiccups at different schools, they’ve done it successfully. They’ve maintained a safe return, and so my hope is that it’s reflected upon by those making the decisions.
“To take the next step and provide an opportunity in a medium-risk sport like basketball, as an example, is a logical next step because of what we’ve done and done it safely.”
Criticism from various parties has shrouded multiple aspects of the IHSA’s approach to pandemic-era fall athletics — namely the postponement of some sports and the loss of state events in others. That’s been enhanced by surrounding Midwest states opting for more traditional fall schedules while Illinois maintains a more conservative course.
This doesn’t lead Anderson to believe member schools, and those associated with them, have lost faith in the IHSA.
“We’re governed by our membership, and our board is made up of member school administrators. For those reasons, we’ll be in lockstep with our member schools,” Anderson said. “So I’m incredibly confident with our board leadership and the quality people that we have in this office.
“That collective drive of over 800 member schools will just reinforce our future direction to move beyond this pandemic and provide great opportunities for the development of young people.”