It’s the question on the minds of many people in Ohio right now: Will there be high school football in the fall?
“That is a real worry,” said Shawnee coach Rick Meeks. “I think we’ll play, but it’ll probably be an abbreviated season.”
All the other fall sports — soccer, volleyball, cross country, girls tennis and field hockey — face the same question, and it’s not one that has ever been asked. In prior years, it would have been like asking, “Is the sun going to come up tomorrow?”
The coronavirus pandemic has changed everything. Of course, there are more pressing issues than the return of sports, but the uncertainty is a hard thing to deal with for area coaches and administrators, who want to stay positive for their athletes but also realistic. No one knows for sure if schools will reopen in August or when sports will resume.
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The Ohio High School Athletic Association extended its no-contact period, which prohibits coaches from providing in-person instruction for athletes, through June 1 on Thursday. All school buildings and facilities will remain closed through June 30, per an order by the Ohio Department of Health.
There’s no guarantee those orders won’t be extended deeper into the summer.
“We wish we had some clarity and some direction to be able to give our coaches and athletes,” Centerville Athletic Director Rob Dement said, ”but I understand why we don’t. It’s just the world we live in right now. That’s the hardest part. We don’t really know the answers to any questions yet.”
Planning for fall
Administrators and coaches faced the same situation in March before the OHSAA cancelled the winter sports championships and again in April when there was still hope of a spring sports season taking place. That, too, eventually was cancelled.
“Everybody wanted answers,” Middletown Athletic Director J.D. Foust said. “What’s the schedule going to look like? When are we going to do the tournaments? You’re kind of leery of putting anything down on paper and giving any kind of answers because the next week things change and you’re just ripping that up.”
Kenton Ridge Athletic Director and boys basketball coach Kris Spriggs knows the feeling. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but all his fall sports schedules are complete.
On the current OHSAA calendar, golf teams can compete in matches as early as Aug. 5. Soccer and volleyball teams can start playing games Aug. 21. The first Friday night of football season is Aug. 28.
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“I think you have to plan as if things are going to happen,” Spriggs said. “It’s a month-by-month case where you try to plan and schedule stuff, and if it’s cancelled, then we just have to move forward and adjust.”
That’s also the approach Beavercreek girls soccer coach Steve Popp is taking.
“Right now, we’re pretty much proceeding as normal,” said Popp, whose program won its first state championship in 2018. “Our schedules have been posted. Our equipment’s being ordered. This is a time of year when we don’t have very much contact with our players. The big change for them is their club seasons have been shut down.”
Looking at 0ptions
Meeks said Southwest District coaches were recently surveyed to get their thoughts on how many days they would need to get their players ready to play. Considering those players have been stuck at home without access to gyms, Meeks said he would need a month. They settled on 17 days — not that it’s set in stone at this point.
Meeks does have unlimited access to one of his players. His son T.J. will be a freshman in the fall.
“We’ve been doing Rocky workouts,” the coach said. “Running and body squats and pushups. We went over to Ferncliff Cemetery and ran repeats on that big back hill. Those are killers.”
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T.J. asked his dad recently if he thinks there will be football this fall, and Meeks told him yes but he wouldn’t be surprised if the 10-game regular season was shortened.
That’s just one option. Dement said he hopes all options are on the table. A shorter or delayed season would be better than no season.
“It’s education-based athletics,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 priority, but monetarily, we really need football to survive athletically. That brings in a good amount of our revenue, and we’re looking to have a pretty good year. I think we’re going to be pretty talented. It could be an exciting fall here.”
Popp’s team played its first game on Aug. 16 last season and played 16 regular-season games. He said if teams can’t practice or condition until Aug. 1, maybe the season could start on Sept. 1 and be reduced to 12 regular-season games.
“You have to be flexible to try to do what you can do in a safe environment,” Popp said.
Dealing with adversity
The big question Foust is getting right now from student-athletes concerns eligibility.
“We’re on semesters, so it’s not like we can just go back and take third-quarter grades,” he said. “We’ve got to go by second semester. We’re looking at scenarios of pass/fail. We usually have a GPA policy of 1.55, but that’s out the window. Most likely it’s going to be pass/fail. But that’s not concrete.”
Centerville is sticking with its traditional grading system, Dement said, so students will have to pass five classes this spring and have a GPA above 2.0 to be eligible for athletics.
“I have instructed all our athletes and coaches it’s business as usual,” he said.
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While administrators and coaches deal with tricky subjects like that, they’re also trying to boost the spirits of their athletes. Spriggs sends group messages to his boys basketball players with a daily questions, such as “What’s the best place to get a hamburger?” or “Who’s better: Michael Jordan or LeBron James?” The goal is to keep them engaged during a time when they’re stuck at home.
Dement conducted a series of interviews on Zoom with his current senior athletes. All the interviews are archived on YouTube.com.
“That was really neat because I got a chance to talk to them and see them and tell them they’re not alone and get their perspective,” Dement said. “They’re not going to get this back, obviously. In the grand scheme of things, life’s going to hand them some adversity that’s probably a heck of a lot more difficult to deal with than this, but right now, this is pretty big. We’re just trying to make sure they understand we’re with them. We’re not going to forget them. At some point, we want to take care of them the way they need to be taken care of. We just don’t know when that’s going to be.”
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