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MHSAA Representative Council gives thumbs-up to on-time start for lower-risk fall sports, tables decision on competition for high-risk sports

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, July 29, 2020, 2:44 pm

Fall is a go for high school sports — the low-risk ones, anyway.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Representative Council approved a phased-in approach for beginning fall sports at Wednesday morning’s meeting, allowing lower-risk sports to begin as scheduled, but tabling an ultimate decision on higher-risk sports for another month.

“We’ll continue to take things in small amounts of time. The easiest thing for us to have done today was just to cancel everything in the fall, just like what some of the southern states have done. Just push everything back. That would’ve been the safest and easiest thing to do — when I say safest, just from a political standpoint right now, we just say ‘Nope, we’re going to try it again in the spring.’ What we’re hearing from our schools as they try to reopen here for face-to-face education later in August is ‘Let’s start small. Let’s start slowly.’ If we have to delay and pause, and give it more time, we’ll have a plan in place that’ll allow us to do so,” MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl said in his weekly guest appearance on “The Huge Show” radio program. 

“There’s a chance that on Aug. 20, we could give a green light to competitions, that they may begin as scheduled for those (high-risk) sports. It may be a case where those sports get delayed. Then, of course, it could be a case where the numbers — we keep following those on a daily basis — to where things get pushed back, even into next spring.”

The Representative Council also eliminated scrimmages in all fall sports, added competition limits to minimize the number of large-scale events, invitationals and tournaments, and an acclimatization week before football players don pads, as well as finalizing individualized guidance documents for each sport.

The lower-risk sports of cross country, girls swimming and diving (Lower Peninsula), girls golf (LP), boys tennis (LP) and girls tennis (Upper Peninsula) can begin practice on time on Aug. 12, and competition at the regularly scheduled time a week or more later.

However, moderate- to high-risk sports — football, volleyball and boys soccer — may begin practices, but not competition, with a decision on timelines for beginning games coming before Aug. 20. 

“Our board felt that it was really important to have that practice opportunity for kids starting off the season in August. If we would have said ‘You know what? We’re going to wait the first month, and nothing’s going to happen until Sept. 7,’ I think you and I and most of your listeners know that there would have then been every AAU, travel, club, non-school athletic organization ready to sign kids up for a nice, healthy registration fee, and there would’ve been a month of non-school soccer, volleyball, and you know what? Somebody would’ve been creative, and we would’ve had a new version of football, whether that was 7-on-7, whether that was something different,” Uyl said. “We really feel … if kids are going to get back to activity, it’s the safest at school, with professional educators — that teacher/coach model that is prevalent in so many of our schools. That’s why we do have the support of the governor’s office with this phased-in approach.”

Football’s first practice comes on Aug. 10, with conditioning and skill work in helmets only, delaying the start of full-padded practices until Aug. 17. 

The built-in delay for football practices was meant to allow players to get reacclimated to physical activity before contact begins. 

“Just getting kids acclimated, getting them moving again. What usually happens that first week of practice is that Michigan weather tends to give us awful hot and humid weather,” Uyl said. “The last four months have ben unlike anything these kids have ever experienced, so giving them that extra week, delaying the start of padded practice, just makes a lot of sense not just from the virus standpoint, but just from an activity standpoint.”

Boys soccer and volleyball start on Aug. 12, with volleyball and swimming practices contingent on the reopening of indoor facilities. Currently, with most of the state — excepting the Upper Peninsula and the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula — in Phase 4 of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Safe Start MI plan, indoor facilities are not open for use for competition or practices. 

“If everybody can continue to do their part, and mask up, and do those things that can help give our kids a season, we’re hopeful here that if the numbers can at least stay static, or even begin to improve — you know what, the whole state moving to a Phase 5 is an attainable goal that I think all of us have,” Uyl said. “If we can do our part here over the next few weeks, let’s give our kids a chance here, not only for sports, but for a successful start to a school year. Because our young people, they need normalcy now more than ever.” 

The council did build in some changes to the formats for competition for some sports, though, realizing the need to keep groups and gatherings small.

Scrimmages were eliminated for the fall sports, as were large invitational tournaments, meets and jamborees. 

“Part of that is being able to control the controllables. … Scrimmages are all over the board in fall sports. … The concept is, if we’re trying to minimize as much risk as we can, let’s only have kids from opposing schools get together when it really counts — that’s for official matches, meets, games and competitions. Eliminating scrimmages was a pretty easy way, our board felt, that they could minimize the risk,” Uyl said, noting that sports like cross country and volleyball will be limited to four competing teams, while golf tournaments will be limited to four competing athletes per hole contested. “You don’t want more than one playing group per hole. That way, when kids arrive at the course, they’re already in their groups. … We’ve done some things that way to where kids can arrive and start the competition. Same thing with cross country, limiting the number of teams that can be in the race, because part of the concern for cross country, certainly is at that starting line. 

“Allowing our teams to play regular-season contests, but again scaling the size of those down to try to control and minimize as much as the risk.”

Uyl said Ohio had announced a similar move with the elimination of scrimmages.

Certainly, there will remain a degree of benchmarking as different states begin to open up for fall activities at different times, something Uyl has said all along he keeps a close eye on. Illinois announced the decision Wednesday to move its highest-risk sports (volleyball, football and boys soccer) to the spring.

“We need to see — I think there’s going to be a lot of information that we’re going to learn here over the next 10 days to two weeks. On Saturday, fall sports start in Ohio. Next Monday, Aug. 3, all fall sports start in Indiana. … They’re going to have a full week or a full 10 days of fall sports practices already that have taken place before we even begin, and I think there’s some real lessons that can be learned from those experiences. And that’s why we’re going to continue to meet regularly with our board, and it is not out of the realm of possibility that we’re going to be doing a weekly-type update or every-10-day update as we get closer and closer to the week of Aug. 10 and beyond,” Uyl said. “These are different times than any of us have every lived through before, and yes, we would love to be able to say ‘Here’s exactly what things are going to look like, and here’s exactly what’s going to happen a month from now.’ But one thing this pandemic has taught us is you just have to slow down, and just take things in very small increments of time. The thing we’re hearing again and again is that when it’s safe to return to activity, our folks will be ready to go. That’s why we’ll just continue to communicate as best we can, in the days ahead.”

Some of the benchmarking will be from in-state educators, watching how things work out with the athletes, who will return to campus much earlier than their classmates.

“Everything we hear from the health experts, even with the school start-up, is they’re encouraging districts that are going to have kids in face-to-face educational settings to try to start with small groups of kids,” Uyl said. 

“That’s a way that, early in August, schools can really get some experience at (keeping) a defined group of kids, and getting them back here for instruction and activity. And a lot of our districts are really looking forward to this, as a way of learning some lessons that can be applied to the school building during the school day.”

The decision has the support of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.

“We understand the decision to make the adjustments to the sports seasons and tournament plans that schools will follow for the 2020-2021 school year was made based on the best information available at this time, and was done so in an effort to meet the health, safety, social, and emotional needs of the students in Michigan,” the MIAA said in a news release.

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