High school sports in Virginia are set to resume nine months after they were put on hold this spring.
The Virginia High School League voted Monday morning to bring back all sports for the upcoming school year, beginning in mid-December and continuing through June. Seasons will look much different than normal, however.
The league’s executive committee voted 34-1 to accept Model 3, one of three recommendations it had been considering.
Model 3 switches fall and winter sports and condenses each of the three seasons. The VHSL aims to have teams play about 60% to 65% of what a normal schedule would look like.
Winter sports will begin Dec. 14 and continue through Feb. 20, with Dec. 28 as the first contest date. Those sports are boys and girls basketball, wrestling, swimming, and indoor track and field.
Fall sports — football, cross country, field hockey, volleyball and golf — will begin Feb. 15 and continue until May 1, with March 1 the first date for contests.
Spring sports — baseball, softball, boys and girls soccer, boys and girls lacrosse, boys and girls tennis, and outdoor track and field — will begin April 12 and continue through June 26, with April 26 the first contest date.
The committee’s decision Monday, VHSL Executive Director Billy Haun explained, was based on the commonwealth’s current Phase 3 guidelines. If the state moves in either direction through the pandemic response phases, dates for the 2020-21 seasons could change.
“Dates you see now may not be the dates etched in stone,” Haun said during a virtual news conference after the committee’s vote.
The two other models that had been under consideration each would have eliminated sports deemed “high contact risk” — football, field hockey and volleyball in one model and lacrosse and soccer in another.
“The one thing you don’t want is what happened to the spring athletes and have more lose their seasons,” Heritage athletic director Dennis Knight said, referring to the cancellation of the spring 2020 season and adding the VHSL’s decision Monday was “the best in this situation.”
E.C. Glass boys lacrosse coach Eddie Ranuska said he, too, was pleased with the VHSL’s vote, especially after his team lost the previous season to the pandemic. In Model 2, which was under consideration ahead of Monday’s vote, his team’s upcoming season also would have been eliminated.
“You go from thinking that you’re gonna lose your season to getting a shortened season, so we’re still happy with that,” Ranuska said, adding his 2018 state champion team — which had made three straight trips to the state title game heading into 2020 — is “happy” to sacrifice a percentage of the season as long as it still can play this school year.
Ranuska and other coaches and athletic directors say Model 3 isn’t perfect. Athletes who are “late bloomers” looking to land a spot on a college team don’t have as many chances to be seen, for example. Moving fall sports into a February to May time frame, especially, limits a recruiting timeline for athletes, as well.
Jefferson Forest golf coach Garnet Manley said seniors on his team in the upcoming school year could be victims of that drawback under the new model. His team and other golfers in the state also could face the issue of poor weather conditions on the golf course in the winter and early spring months.
During its meeting Monday, the VHSL executive committee discussed moving forward with playing golf in the fall because of the amount of space on courses that allows for social distancing. But members ultimately dismissed that idea because of concerns about ensuring equity with other sports and the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic’s current effect on the state.
The VHSL still needs to put together a calendar of dates, and aims to have those details — including decisions and information about playoff systems under the condensed season format — ironed out by Sept. 1.
“People have to realize normal doesn’t exist, at least not currently, in our system,” Haun said.
In addition to potential date changes, Haun cautioned the commonwealth’s virus guidelines and social distancing suggestions could limit which sports could be played. The Phase 3 guidelines the state is currently under would prohibit high contact risk sports from being played.
“In order to play those high-risk sports, we’re going to have to have Virginia move out of Phase 3, or have the guidelines revised,” Haun said.
The league is working with other sports governing bodies to determine mitigation measures that would lead to high-risk sports being reclassified as moderate-risk.
State guidelines likely will affect high school athletics from a fan standpoint, too, with crowd sizes currently limited.
Despite having a plan for athletics headed into the school year now, a number of issues remain for schools across the state.
Transportation concerns stand out. Potential social distancing measures could increase the number of buses and drivers needed for travel. And as school divisions across the state implement their own reopening plans, with many of them turning to virtual learning for at least part of the school week, officials foresee problems transporting players to and from practice.
“It’s hard to schedule athletic contests if you can’t be at school every day,” Knight added.
The VHSL so far has not released sport-specific guidelines for competition, such as face mask requirements for players and coaches on sidelines or eliminating extra contact like high-fives.
Additionally, when asked whether the league has considered the implications of outbreaks or similar health issues on Virginia high school sports, Haun shied away from saying the VHSL will mandate pauses or complete stoppages for certain areas or sports. Haun instead said every school division should have addressed such issues in reopening plans that were required to be submitted to the Virginia Department of Education, adding divisions likely would work with local health departments to determine the best course of action.
In Lynchburg, division officials have those hypotheticals “in the back of our mind,” Knight said, but haven’t had in-depth conversations about the issue because they had been waiting on the VHSL’s decision.
Ben Cates contributed to this report.
Ben Cates contributed to this report
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