I have to take my hat off to this group, what a tremendous job by these kids. They’ve been so adaptable that it makes me encouraged for the future. — Cherokee Trail coach Joe Johnson
For the first time in a quarter century, Scott Cohen has no swimming to coach in December.
The longtime Smoky Hill High School swim coach has followed the same ritual year in and year out at this time, running tryouts and building his team to get ready for a few dual meets and a couple invitationals before Christmas break.
But the pool will be empty until the new year — and won’t look the same even when it used again — as the coronavirus continues to change the rhythm and the feeling of every prep sport for veterans such as Cohen, who also had his season coach the Buffaloes’ boys wiped out in the spring.
“Things are constantly changing and I’m so used to this being our first week of meets every year for the last 25 years,” Cohen told the Sentinel this week. “We would have had our first meet on Thursday and off we would go. It’s so strange…”
Even more than eight months since the pandemic made its Earth-shattering appearance on the scene in March — canceling the entire spring season and stopping the state basketball tournaments just short of completion — things still seem strange for prep athletes and coaches in Colorado and across the country.
A largely safe and successful fall season consisted of just five sports — football, softball, cross country, boys golf and boys tennis — and showed that sports can be contested safely, even in a pandemic, with proper precautions and adherence of coaches, athletes and parents to unprecedented protocols.
When it constructed its new athletic calendar in early August, the Colorado High School Activities Association — the state’s Aurora-based governing body for high school athletics — built in a moratorium from the middle of October to the new year as it anticipated the possible acceleration of the spread of the virus given the return to in-person learning in some districts as well as the holiday season.
The plan — which was altered with the late addition of football (Tale of Two Seasons Cover Story, here) — is looking more prescient by the day as COVID-19 concerns have accelerated of late and could continue that direction this month.
The winter season — aka Season B, which consists of boys and girls basketball, wrestling, girls swimming and ice hockey, along with competitive spirit, which got bumped back from the fall — is up next and will soon find out from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ office if and what it can expect to face on Jan. 4, 2021, when practice is supposed to get started.
Lessons of the Fall
The fall prep sports season in Aurora and statewide can generally be considered a certifiable success given all the parameters put into place and the advantage of all playing outdoors, where restrictions were more favorable than on anything inside.
For the most part, athletes, coaches, administrators and fans across the area and the state took precautions seriously as they desperately hoped to play. Because of that, all state championship events in boys golf, boys tennis, cross country and softball were run on time and by all reports safely, providing hope for the seasons to come.
Only football — a late addition to the calendar which came after concerted effort and a continued exchange between Polis’ office and CHSAA that resulted in a truncated regular season (six games as opposed to the usual 10) and shrunken postseason field (eight teams instead of 16) — has yet to finish and will do so Dec. 3-5 with state championship games in seven classifications scheduled to be played at Colorado State-Pueblo.
There will now be fans allowed in the stands at the Neta & Eddie DeRose ThunderBowl — 150 of them — after a decision announced Dec. 1 by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
It’s a far cry from the original variance announced in early November, which called for a maximum of 1,400 attendees — and then dropped to zero as COVID-19 surged prior to Thanksgiving — but it’s something. Crowds have been severely limited the whole season, with school districts and private schools allowing different numbers of attendees within their area’s mandates, while requiring mask wearing and social distancing between households in the stands.
The sheer size of rosters (even with a limit of 50 players per level) and face-to-face nature of football make it a more susceptible sport to the affects of the coronavirus and that bore itself out with a number of teams across the state missing games due to quarantine, either of themselves or their opponents or due to exposure to COVID-19 positive classmates or teachers at their schools.
Remarkably, it was less of a problem in Aurora, where the six football programs that chose to play in the fall — Cherokee Trail, Eaglecrest, Grandview, Overland, Regis Jesuit and Smoky Hill — missed only two games out of a possible 42.
Only one of those came with their own quarantine when Eaglecrest had to miss its Week 5 game after two students at the school tested positive, which forced 26 students who were in close contact into quarantine. Overland missed its Week 7 non-qualifying game when its opponent, Doherty, went into quarantine.
“We can’t really social distance very much playing football, but we haven’t had anybody come up positive and only had people quarantined because of the people outside,” Cherokee Trail coach Joe Johnson said after his team’s loss to Valor Christian in the Class 5A playoffs.
“I have to take my hat off to this group, what a tremendous job by these kids,” he added. “They’ve been so adaptable that it makes me encouraged for the future.”
Outside of football, the other fall sports had built-in measures of social distancing due to their nature — from where they were contested to no shared equipment to smaller numbers — which contributed to their safe success.
Boys golfers had the wide open spaces of courses as an advantage, played in small groups and didn’t need to come anywhere near each other to play. The state golf tournaments looked pretty much identical to the past, though with coaches masked and spectators more spread out on the course. Aurora had nine qualifiers between the Class 5A and 4A state tournaments.
Boys tennis players had social distance within matches as they play on opposite sides of the court. Each player or doubles team had their own sets of balls for their service games. Regis Jesuit won 5A state championships at No. 1 singles (senior Morgan Schilling), No. 2 singles (junior Conor Kaczmarcyzk) and No. 3 singles (sophomore Cameron Kruep) and finished runner-up to Cherry Creek.
Cross country races — in which runners are typically spaced out during competition — were smaller in size and larger meets were eliminated to cut down on congregation at the start and finish line, where runners often collapse after they finish. Masks were required at the starting line and could be removed after the race got underway.
State fields were capped at 100 boys and girls runners in each classification — divided into four waves of 25 — and included 16 boys and nine girls from Aurora programs. Lotus School For Excellence’s Kidus Begashaw won the 3A boys state championship, while Cherokee Trail’s Cameron McConnell finished as the 5A girls runner-up.
Softball featured social distancing on the field, while roster sizes limited to 12 (until the postseason) to help lesson issues in enclosed dugouts. Quarantines had some affect to local teams like at Regis Jesuit, where a couple of players had to come out of games in the middle due to quarantines of their groups at school.
Smoky Hill won the Centennial League championship and Cherokee Trail went all the way to the 5A state championship game before falling to Fossil Ridge at Aurora Sports Park.
Swimming’s new look
There’s nothing like the energy on a pool deck during a high school swim meet, but girls swim teams will have to bring it themselves this winter.
Aurora is a very unique area in Colorado as almost every high school has a swimming pool inside, which will allow for virtual swim meet starting in January.
Nine of the 11 city high schools have their own facilities, while Overland has to go just across the street to use the Utah Park facility. Vista PEAK Prep doesn’t have a pool, but sends girls to swim with Rangeview in the winter and boys to compete with the Aurora Public Schools district team in the spring.
Teams will swim in their own pools instead of head-to-head as usual and results will be merged by the “home” team to create a dual meet score. Both teams must swim on the same day and have officials.
Cohen said the Centennial League plans to run dual meets almost exclusively with the virtual format, though Overland and Mullen must travel and swim in-person duals. The Trailblazers’ pool at Utah Park is measured in meters and not yards like all the other pools, while the Mustangs don’t have a pool at all.
“The advantage of virtual meets is you can use your whole pool and give more swimmers the chance to swim,” Cohen said. “We’ll still score it like a six-lane meet so the other kids won’t score points, but there’s going to be less meets, so giving more kids the opportunity to swim at each meet is a good thing.”
Virtual meets will likely to be the same with many schools in the EMAC, where the Aurora Public Schools programs reside.
For the rare in-person dual meets, only 25 swimmers can be on the pool deck at one time (per current restrictions), so competitors will be cycled in to warm up and swim their events before exiting to separate locations.
Smoky Hill will be able to host a three-team Smoky Hill Invitational and a four-team portion of the Centennial “A” League Championship meet because it has multiple holding areas near its pool (two gymnasiums and a cafeteria) to keep teams separated.
There will not only be fewer duals this year (seven plus a conference championship meet) and there will be hundreds of fewer spots available in the 5A state meet in a new format in which only the top 20 individuals or relay team in each of the 12 events will advance.
Previously, any swimmer or relay team to achieve the qualifying time would make the state meet. Last year, that meant a whopping 509 individuals and 95 relay teams earned their way into the 5A girls state meet (including 56 individuals and 15 relay teams from Aurora).
Just 180 qualifiers and 60 relay teams will be onhand for this season’s state meet, meaning every chance a swimmer or diver gets to compete is valuable to enhance her position in the top 20 or earn her way into the group.
The state meet will also run differently with only the two heats of each event allowed on deck at the same time and the heats will do the hand timing for each other, eliminating the usual number of timers on deck.
Cohen — who serves as the chairman of CHSAA’s swim committee — believes the plans put in place by the committee and the fact that multiple studies have shown the chlorine in the water has been proven to kill the coronavirus means the swim season is in good shape.
“Whether they are the best swimmer in the state or a beginner, we want kids to have the opportunity to compete for their school,” Cohen said. “Some things will look different to make that happen, but we believe we have a plan that allows this to happen as safely as it can.”
Because of Title IX implications, the boys swim season in the spring will be run in the same format as the girls, regardless of the state of progress in the battle with COVID-19. Things may return to normal next season if it becomes safe.
Wrestling grapples with hope
Wrestling faces the longest odds of any sport in the winter — or on the rest of the calendar — as it has been classified as high-risk for potential transmission of the virus by its sheer mechanics, where wrestlers share the mat in close contact for six or more minutes in a match.
Over the summer, Grandview wrestling coach Ryan Budd thought wrestling had only about a 50-50 chance of happening, but he grew more encouraged for his sport when football got approved.
“Of all the sports, wrestling is a pretty tough sport for this because of all the close contact you have,” Budd said. “I appreciate how CHSAA is trying to make everything happen. It’s a crazy dangerous time going on right now, but if we can get kids together safely, it would be really beneficial for them. … There’s so many factors at play, but whatever they give us is what we are going to do and be grateful for the opportunity.”
As one of the indoor sports, wrestling faces the challenges of limited numbers in the same room for practice and current restrictions on indoor gatherings wouldn’t allow for a dual match to be contested. Variances would have to be approved to allow wrestlers in the 14 weight classes to compete.
Some wrestling teams have found ways to work out at other facilities in the offseason given restrictions or closure of school buildings, but no matter what shape they come in, injuries and fitness will be a concern right away.
“Wrestling shape is different and it’s hard to get in wrestling shape without wrestling,” Budd said.
The end of the wrestling season typically has the biggest payoff at the end, as state qualifiers get to compete in front of massive crowds at the Ball Arena (formerly Pepsi Center), where attendance can reach over 10,000 for semifinal and championship rounds in the evenings of the three-day tournament.
Budd still feels fortunate that his sport got to complete its season just two weeks before the pandemic intervened.
“I feel incredibly lucky we were able to finish up the way we did,” Budd said. “At least we got to finish, but it made me sick to my stomach for our Grandview basketball programs — who were both in the Final Four — to not get to finish and all the sports that never got a chance after that.”
Per current projections, only two qualifiers per weight from each regional would qualify for state this year — down from four at each weight previously — and the state tournament would be one day instead of the usual three. It could have a big effect on state championship team races, as it could limit teams’ abilities to qualify their entire lineups.
Girls wrestling, sanctioned this year for the first time after two years as a pilot program, was supposed to hold its state tournament in conjunction with the boys, but how that will work this year is yet to be determined.
Many of those questions will be answered when the results of variance requests come back.
Hockey’s challenges on ice
Another winter sport with some major challenges is ice hockey, which faces multiple levels of obstacles in the quest to get back on the ice for the high school season.
Not only does ice hockey need the approval of variances to play due to the sizes of the teams, but it is one of the few sports which has a playing surface that is in short supply and not under control of individual schools.
The Cherry Creek co-op team, which melds together players from all over the Cherry Creek School District, and Regis Jesuit both play their home games out of Family Sports Center, which is a facility also open to the public. Each facility has its own policies and restrictions, making scheduling games and practices especially difficult according to Cherry Creek coach Jeff Mielnicki.
Mielnicki feels optimistic that the season will happen, however, and he’s grateful to CHSAA for moving the start of the season out of December, when current COVID-19 surges would likely have forced a major disruption.
“The committee that made the decision for this pause period was brilliant,” Mielnicki said. “I think they anticipated what could happen and instead of starting, putting things on pause and restarting, now you are just planning. I think the CHSAA committee should be commended.”
The regular season is expected to be reduced to 13 contests — with teams playing the teams in their respective conferences twice along with one non-league contest — and masks will be required for players at all times other than when they are out on the ice and especially on the bench area, where they are in close quarters.
Empty gyms possible for hoops
Shawn Palmer hasn’t forgotten the disappointment of having the chance to win a second straight 5A state championship with this Rangeview boys basketball team ripped out of his hands by the threat of COVID-19.
The Raiders were poised to play Grandview in an all-Aurora semifinal in March when the explosion of the virus forced CHSAA to pull the plug on the tournament. The Grandview girls also got robbed of a chance to play for a state title as their final with Cherry Creek got wiped out as well.
Boys and girls basketball teams should be back at in January with their regular season schedules drastically reduced to 14 games — meaning most leagues will play only against each other — and they are getting ready for anything.
“At this point you have to completely prepare for how it is scheduled to go, yet also prepare to be completely flexible,” Palmer said wryly.
Unless something changes drastically with variance requests due in the next few days, Palmer expects games to be played with no fans (at least at the start of the season), with just teams, coaches, referees and support staff present.
That scenario would take away the home court advantage for most teams and will definitely change the flow of momentum in games, but Palmer expects them to adapt.
“It’s not what these guys grew up thinking about; they envision playing in gyms full of fans with friends and family,” Palmer said. “Most athletes are pretty resilient and it’s just an extra opportunity to overcome some adversity. We’ll have to create the energy from the benches and from the players, but they’ve been watching college and NBA athletes doing it, so they’ve seen it done.”
Players will wear masks as they have during club seasons and Palmer said that a mask break will be built into every quarter, so players, coaches and officials can spread out, remove their masks briefly to catch their breath or get a drink of water before they return to play.
Waiting to cheer
Competitive cheer initially landed in the high-risk category — defined as “sports that involve close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers, and high probability that respiratory particles well be transmitted between participants” — and its normal season that ends with competition at the Denver Coliseum got moved to Season B. Given the large sizes of squads and proximity they have during competition, how it can be contested safely is still up in the air.
Season C and beyond
Coronavirus adaptations happen daily and the potential of a vaccine could make things more normal by the time Season C (football, girls volleyball, boys soccer, field hockey, and gymnastics) begins in March and Season D (baseball, girls soccer, boys and girls lacrosse, boys swimming, track & field, girls golf, girls tennis and boys volleyball) opens in late April, but the name of the game continues to be patience, flexibility and safety.