When and even whether high school sports will return for the 2020-21 school year is a matter that will remain unresolved until at least June 15, but possibly much longer despite Aug. 1 remaining the target date for the beginning of fall sports practice.
The North Carolina High School Athletic Association confirmed at least that much last week as commissioner Que Tucker addressed media members via a Zoom call prior to meeting with athletic directors from around the state via the same method in three staggered sessions regarding the impact of COVID-19 on high school sports. Warren County Athletic Director Wanda Thompson sat in for one of those virtual meetings on Friday.
The 2020 spring sports seasons concluded with the majority of games, including playoffs, left not played following the cancellation of the state basketball finals in March.
Will teams be able to participate in NCHSAA-sanctioned workouts this summer? When will fall sports actually start? And might football be played with no fans in the stands? Those are some of the most dire questions that won’t be answered until the NCHSAA receives further guidance from Gov. Roy Cooper and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Even if the state and NCHSAA do green light a return to the playing fields, Warren County Schools would still need to OK the move. Warren County could impose stricter guidelines, but not more lenient.
And as for the potential resumption of fall sports, there is currently no measure in place that would allow full schedules to be played if students haven’t physically returned to campus.
“The one thing we’re looking at is just trying to get everything in place so that if we are allowed to go back,” Thompson said, “that we have everything in place that they say we’re supposed to have.”
Preparation, as Thompson alluded to, was really the heart of last week’s meetings more than any concrete determination on the likelihood of returning to athletic action in 2020.
In current NCDHHS guidance for administrators and participants of youth, college and amateur sports programs released May 22, playing football, basketball and soccer would not be advisable since “participants cannot maintain social distancing and close contact is frequent and/or prolonged.”
That doesn’t mean those sports couldn’t still work out this summer through conditioning or drills, or that those recommendations will remain in place for the fall. But even if summer workouts start on June 15, social distancing restrictions will keep teams from having more than 10 players or coaches indoors at one time and 25 outside, as specified by the NCHSAA’s first of a three-phase process to return to sports.
“As you know, this is unprecedented territory,” Tucker said in the press conference, “and while we hope to return to activities in mid-June, we know that conditions change rapidly relative to this virus.”
Tucker spoke to state ADs about the importance of sanitizing athletic facilities and equipment, and implementing hand washing stations and sanitary hydration practices for potential summer workouts. The former assistant women’s basketball coach at N.C. State under Kay Yow also advised ADs to begin stockpiling personal protective equipment, obtain thermometers for temperature checks of players and coaches, and to devise social distancing plans for fans in the fall.
Tucker said the NCHSAA is currently preparing for multiple scenarios in the fall. One of those is games being played in venues at 50 percent capacity, although she said the current goal was still to have the stands full.
“The hard part comes how you determine which 50 percent get in,” Tucker said, “and that obviously would be something that we would not tell our schools how to do.”
Revenue produced through football and basketball drives most athletic departments, so limited capacity could be detrimental to some programs, especially smaller schools with fewer resources.
“We’re going to make do,” Thompson said, “and I’m just going to have to get out there and try to get some more sponsorship for the booster board, which, again, is hard because a lot of businesses have had to close because of the virus.”
Tucker indicated limited schedules could be enacted for fall sports including football, but the idea of moving any fall sports to the spring and vice versa hasn’t even been entertained yet by the NCHSAA.
Limited schedules means potentially fewer regular season games and maybe even reduced playoff games.
Tucker said the NCHSAA is operating with the end date of seasons in mind rather than the beginning and gave an example of starting fall sports Sept. 1, then deciding how to shorten the seasons from there.
“We’re not at the point yet where we’re folding up the tent on football for this fall,” Tucker said. “But we are hopeful that at least we can have some fans, and then we’ll have to figure out how that plays out.”
Then there’s the matter of what to do if a student-athlete tests positive for COVID-19. Would quarantine methods be put in place? Would that player’s team be eliminated from competition? What about the teams they played against? The NCHSAA hasn’t yet worked out an answer for any of those questions either.
Or how a football team with dozens of members might socially distance on one or two buses, among many other unresolved concerns.
“I think our administration, central office staff and board of education — I think they are so, so concerned about everyone that works for the school system,” Thompson said. “They have been wonderful, and I do think they are definitely going to make sure that everyone is safe and that’s their top priority.”
A spring with no sports
Warren County’s baseball and softball teams each only got a few games in before spring sports were shut down.
The golf and track and field teams weren’t even able to get a single meet in and most importantly, every spring sports senior student-athlete graduated without being able to fully compete in their final season.
In track and field, standouts Malik Hargrove and Deaven Hawkins missed out on a final chance to experience the brilliant color and atmosphere of a state meet at N.C. A&T’s Aggie Stadium. Coach Morton Jones, having returned from retirement, didn’t get to see how much rising star thrower Whitney Alston, a sophomore, could improve.
At least she’ll be back.
“I was looking forward to working with some of the kids and hoping they would qualify for regionals and maybe the state meet,” Jones said. “This is something that none of us in this lifetime have ever seen before. In the beginning we were hoping that we could return once things settled down, but as we all know now, it just wasn’t possible.”
“For the most part,” Eagles baseball coach Andy Short said, “team competitive sports when your high school career ends, that last at-bat or that last dash down the track or throwing shot put or hitting a tennis ball, that last one is your last one as far as team competitiveness for 90 percent of all high school athletes.”
Short hated it for his seniors like southpaw pitcher Kellen Tucker, who Short hopes will have a chance to walk on to a college team. And for slugger Semaj Alexander, a 6-foot-2, 270-plus pounder with a world of potential that missed his all-important junior season, and a chance to get noticed by college scouts.
Softball senior Kalisha Harrison may also get a chance to walk on at N.C. A&T. But she’ll never get her senior high school season back.
When the season was finally canceled, Harrison told her teammates not to take for granted the times they can go to practice and be with their teammates.
“Give it everything you’ve got,” Warren County softball coach Herley Moss added. “Enjoy the moment. Because there’s going to come a time when it’s truly going to be over and it really set in for her that it was over.”
The NCHSAA will go forward with adopting classification and conference realignment plans that will go into effect for the 2021-22 seasons.
Thompson said she expects a decision around December and for Warren County to remain at the 1A level, although the Eagles could potentially move out of the Northern Carolina Conference, which has long been their home.
The Northern Carolina currently features four 2A schools and three in 1A. A move to a league like the Tar Roanoke would give Warren County a chance to compete against solely 1A teams in conference play like Northwest Halifax, Southeast Halifax and Weldon among other schools.