Every day during the coronavirus pandemic brings new and unexpected challenges in virtually all phases of life.
High school sports is no different.
With the scheduled start of fall sports in Colorado just three weeks away — two for boys golf, which is slated to begin Aug. 3 — local coaches have no more idea if their teams will be able to play than they did back in March when the COVID-19 threat exploded.
This week, states across the country from New Mexico (which moved football and boys soccer from the fall to the spring) to Florida (which originally made no changes to its July 27 start date before changing course July 23) have released their plans, while the Colorado High School Activities Association remains in a holding pattern as it waits for its proposal to be considered by Gov. Jared Polis’ office.
Football is the sport that draws the most attention — and seems most at risk — but the other fall sports have their own hurdles to clear. Any number of scenarios could become reality in the coming days, but here are the perspectives of a few coaches in fall sports:
Smoky Hill coach BJ Kingsbaker has straddled a bizarre line this summer.
The majority of the players from his high school team — a Class 5A state tournament qualifier last season — have played competitively for most of the summer around Colorado or at out of state tournaments, only to find a much different landscape at summer practices where it was two weeks before they could even touch a softball.
Kingsbaker has guided his team through the first two phases of the Cherry Creek School District’s protocol for the return to fall sports (which began when facilities were opened June 15) and finally can hold a practice the resembles “normal.”
The mechanics of the sport allow for athletes to have distance between each other — with the exception of dugouts — while each team is likely to have its own set of softballs to use on defense.
“From a softball standpoint, there’s not a ton of physical contact,” Kingsbaker said. “I’m not sure what CHSAA’s final say is going to be and what that is going to look like, but I certainly don’t feel unsafe if we are playing.”
Kingsbaker knows his season might be canceled at any time by CHSAA or his district — which currently states that if the school year begins with remote learning that it won’t have fall sports — but is preparing as usual.
“I don’t know how to do anything different,” Kingsbaker said. “We’re practicing twice a week and I’m still ordering uniforms and balls. I do it with the full understanding that I may do this with no result at the end.”
As an indoor sport, volleyball faces more challenges than its outdoor counterparts.
Using district facilities can be particularly complicated, so some programs have found outside venues to use for practice in a sport predicated on skill work and repetition.
“I’m optimistic, yet I’m a realist,” longtime Cherokee Trail coach Terry Miller said of the prospects of a season. “We’re obviously in unchartered waters. …I hope we play because I don’t want those seniors who have worked so hard to lose their season.”
Miller and other high school volleyball coaches have also been preparing for the possibility that the sport gets moved to the spring, which would create a conflict with club volleyball.
Players with few scholarship offers might have to choose between club play that offers them more exposure to college programs and representing their school.
Cross country and track coaches across the country have been sharing resources to make meets happen safely if they are allowed.
Longtime Cherokee Trail coach Chris Faust believes that most Colorado coaches and runners would be in favor of any sort of competition, even if it meant a vastly different look from tradition in the beginning.
From limiting meets to two or three teams to releasing runners in spaced out waves where only time is used to determine places and team scores, Faust sees several creative ways for running to happen in the fall.
“Cross country isn’t going to look like it would normally look, but I think the varst majority of kids and parents would be willing to do what it takes for the first two or three months,” Faust said. “I know there’s a lot of teams out there practicing in anticipation of a season taking place.”
BOYS GOLF AND BOYS TENNIS
Of all the fall sports, boys golf and boys tennis appear to be the best bets to be held safely given their natural ability for social distancing. Both were among the handful of sports termed low risk for disease transmission by CHSAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).
Naturally predisposed to social distancing, golf has been booming since courses reopened after initially closing in March. In a July 23 interview with 9NEWS, CHSAA Commissioner Rhonda Blanford-Green said that “We have communicated to our schools that we are ready to go with golf on Aug. 3.”
Grandview tennis coach Jeff Ryan just held a three-day camp — for high school kids only and with the number of players per court restricted — and feels pretty confident that his sport is safe enough to play. Each singles player or doubles team naturally have a lot of distance when on the court and would have their own set of balls that only they would touch to serve.
Field hockey fell into the moderate risk category and it is all because of the way the game is played. It has an advantage in that players don’t share equipment and don’t need to touch the ball with their hands at all.
What can’t disappear from the game is the situations where players come together.
“I don’t think you can play field hockey without close contact,” Smoky Hill coach Natalie Foerster said. “That’s what makes it good when you have competitive, aggressive players who aren’t going to stay six away from each other.”
Aurora has three field hockey programs in Grandview, Regis Jesuit and Smoky Hill.
Overland co-op gymnastics coach Lisa Sparrow remains “completely optimistic” that there will be a season. She knows it is possible to do safely, as she has run modified competitions at Achieve Gymnastics this summer than have run smoothly.
Teams would warm up and then perform the event right away, thoroughly clean it for the next team and move along to the next.
As the other indoor sport in the fall along with volleyball, Sparrow believes that a mask mandate would pose a major risk to gymnasts in terms of safety.
“I am going to remain completely optimistic until somebody tells me there’s not going to be a season,” Sparrow said.
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports