BLOOMINGTON — Sufficient concern surrounds the collective fate of boys’ and girls’ basketball this school year.
Understandably so given the COVID-19 pandemic and associated safety guidelines could leave those athletes unable to compete this fall and winter.
High school basketball games, however, are more likely to happen during the 2020-21 school year than wrestling matches.
That’s because wrestling is deemed a higher-risk sport within the health guidelines defined by the Illinois Department of Public Health and backed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
Basketball, by comparison, is considered medium risk.
As a result, a small group of wrestling leaders are requesting the IHSA Board of Directors consider moving the upcoming wrestling season from its current timeline of Nov. 30 through Feb. 13 to a summer setup that would start in May.
Downers Grove North coach Chris McGrath, Washington coach Nick Miller and Lockport coach Josh Oster helped formulate the appeal, as did IHSA wrestling official Nate Kessen, who also is president-elect of the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association.
That appeal first was heard by the board during its September meeting, and the result was a course of no immediate action.
According to an IHSA press release after the meeting, “the board tabled the appeal, citing a desire to revisit the topic at their October meeting when they can better evaluate winter sports.”
IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson told The News-Gazette last week that this is still the plan when board members gather again next Monday.
“We’ve actually got it on the agenda for our October board meeting,” Anderson said.
So what’s the difference when it comes to team-versus-team events transpiring within basketball and wrestling during the pandemic?
If the basketball season began today, players would be allowed to take part in intra-team scrimmages but not games against opponents, according to the IDPH guidelines. The IHSA presently is deferring to the IDPH and Pritzker — and these guidelines, as a result.
Wrestling is in even worse shape than basketball when it comes to following IDPH directives. The IDPH rules permit wrestlers only to participate in non-contact practices at this time.
Coaches, such as Mahomet-Seymour’s Rob Ledin, created workarounds to this restriction for both summer and fall contact days. As Ledin told The News-Gazette in July, his athletes would engage in “things that don’t take a practice partner — stance and motion being the easiest.” He used “stand-up escapes by yourself against the wall (and) sit-out and gravity-style drills” as examples.
But the IHSA’s 2020-21 wrestling season is right around the corner. Official practices are supposed to begin in a little more than a month on Nov. 16, and matches have a listed start date of Nov. 30.
The second date, especially, seems unrealistic given the IDPH’s guidelines and the IHSA’s adherence to them. Anderson said he has engaged in conversations with Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz to try to have more discussion about winter sports.
“Wrestling and basketball, in particular, but competitive dance, competitive cheer (two other higher-risk sports) also as we prepare for that October board meeting,” Anderson said. “So I think, hopefully, we’ll have some new information from that office that would maybe help guide our board of directors’ decision.”
Some observers may wonder why the IHSA doesn’t break stride with the IDPH and Pritzker, or why the IHSA isn’t able to regain control of its own “Return To Play” guidelines following a September letter from Anderson to Pritzker and Ruiz in which Anderson asked for that ability.
Anderson said abiding by the IDPH/Pritzker directives is in the IHSA’s best interest because 85 percent of its membership is public schools.
But Anderson doesn’t have a clear-cut response about why the IHSA doesn’t have full control about when it can regain full authority over its own guidelines. Some of Anderson’s comments in recent months via IHSA press releases have indicated frustration over a perceived lack of communication between state officials and those at the IHSA.
“When you talk about control, you think about our ability to just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to play these sports on our timeline,’” Anderson said. “That’ll continue to be provisions, of which we’ll communicate with the department of public health and the governor’s office — but through the deputy governor, likely, to see how that progresses.
“I think they’re still going to want to be a part of (“Return To Play”) and to view what guidelines we’re putting in place as we’re bringing on new sports and activities. The key for us is just that we get permission to move forward. We’ll accept (and) have been accepting of the general safety protocols and guidelines.”