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Football is back, with some twists

Football is back, with some twists

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For now at least, the plan is to go ahead with the high school football season.

As part of its return-to-play model that passed overwhelmingly in an executive committee vote Monday morning, the VHSL is bringing back the sport along with all other athletic activities in the coming school year.

As with many sports in the age of the coronavirus, there are twists, caveats and questions still unanswered as the league grapples with an unprecedented process.

Here’s what we know:

» Football moves to the winter and spring. The first date teams can play a game is March 1, 2021; the last day for games is May 1. That amounts to 10 weeks. Since teams could begin the season on a Monday, they could then feasibly turn around and play again Friday. With seasons condensed, the VHSL’s goal is to allow teams to play 60% to 65% of their usual schedules, meaning teams likely would play six or seven regular-season games.

» The playoffs will be different, too. This is where it gets tricky. Several ideas were batted about in Monday’s meeting. There could be a one-game “bowl” situation in which teams could play for a region title. Or there could be a two-game playoff system and possibly even more. VHSL Executive Director Billy Haun said the executive committee will have a plan for the playoffs in place by Sept. 1.

During the first day of unofficial practice in Bedford on Monday, Liberty High coach Chris Watts noted scheduling and playoff situations are “100% speculative right now.” He also echoed a hope other coaches have: “We would love to have as much of a playoff system as possible. That’s for certain.”

» Fans likely will be limited. Under Gov. Ralph Northam’s Phase 3 guidelines currently in place, sporting venues currently are capped at 1,000 people (social gatherings are limited to 250 people). Should the state not advance out of Phase 3 before the season begins, school divisions across the state may easily be faced with a decline in ticket sales, since it’s unclear if fans will want to return. That could have a snowball effect, because schools typically rely on football sales to fund other sports.

» “Think outside the athlete box”: Questions about players’ safety abounded in a virtual press conference following Monday’s meeting. Haun reiterated throughout the morning safety is the league’s top priority. Tom Dolan, the league’s associate director, also encouraged people to “think outside the athlete box” when it comes to safety, pointing out the health of officials is a priority. “Should you have an outbreak of those individuals and those individual groups and they have to shut down, your sports are gonna shut down,” Dolan said of officials.

» Face shields and more: Football is considered a high-risk sport for transmission of the coronavirus; in one of its models, the executive committee recommended canceling the season completely. Now, the league will go about instituting new guidelines to try and label the sport a moderate-risk activity. That includes the possibility of players wearing face shields this season, league communications director Mike McCall said. “Will that be enough?” McCall said about shields. “We don’t know yet, but we are having those types of discussions.”

» Travel concerns: The league’s decision for playoffs could hinge on how far teams are allowed to travel for competition by their respective school divisions. It’s also possible teams would need more buses for traveling, even across short distances, to keep athletes socially separated.

» Scheduling games: This one could be challenging, too, especially in the Seminole District, where eight teams reside. Every team in the district would have to play seven regular-season games for every team to match up once. Right now, it’s unclear if each team in the district will play seven games. However, that could change soon as athletic directors iron out details.

» Monitoring cases: The league made it clear monitoring sports teams for coronavirus cases rests with individual school districts. That includes any decisions that could be made about the future of the sport for the upcoming season should athletes begin testing positive.

Reactions and more

Brookville coach Jon Meeks wishes a full season could take place but said Monday he was happy the VHSL chose Model 3.

“I’m glad it looks like we’ll have the opportunity,” he said. “That’s all you can ask for in these crazy times.”

The Bees, Meeks said, mostly have been focusing on weight lifting, conditioning and drills at practice.

Watts was happiest to receive any sort of decisive news, noting he was glad the committee didn’t decide to table issues and return for a vote at a later date.

“Now it’s just a matter of logistics, how they’ll actually go about things,” he said. “I’ll be anxious to see what it actually looks like. Obviously, we’ve got some time to figure it out now.”

As a third-generation football coach, Heritage’s Brad Bradley noted this August will be odd. Usually, the end of the month signals the start of the high school season. This year, the dog days will feature only practice, and altered ones at that, as teams are required to practice social distancing on fields.

The plus to a later start date: teams have extra time to prepare as the sport moves to winter and spring months.

Bradley also hopes his team can incorporate a football into its socially distanced activities soon. The VHSL has not allowed footballs to be used yet, but that could change soon, as the league indicated it could provide a new set of guidelines this week.

“Right now, it should be about the safety of the kids,” Bradley said. “If you’re breaking the rules, kids are not your first priority.”

Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527.

Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527. 

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