High school sports delayed again after COVID-19 surge

Camas coach: ‘We will follow every protocol …if it leads to a basketball season’

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Camas High School's Blake Bell looks to escape double coverage during the Papermakers' game against Prairie High on Dec. 5, 2019. The start of the 2020-21 prep sports season has been postponed until February 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Post-Record file photo)

During a workout session on Nov. 16, a Washougal High School basketball player asked coach AJ LaBree how long much longer the team would be allowed to continue practicing. 

“He saw the writing on the wall with the latest surge of COVID cases,” LaBree said.

The player’s question proved prescient. The next day, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) announced its latest alterations to the 2020-21 season schedule, postponing the start of the winter sports season until Feb. 1 and shortening each of the three remaining seasons to seven weeks each. 

Season 2, which includes boys basketball, girls basketball, boys wrestling, girls wrestling, bowling, gymnastics and boys swimming and diving, was originally scheduled to begin Dec. 28. 

“I am happy that the WIAA continues to delay instead of cancel,” said Camas High School girls basketball coach Scott Thompson. “Ultimately, we want to play some version of a season this year. If the WIAA feels that we might be able to get that opportunity in February, we are all for it.”

The WIAA also stated that all indoor activities were to cease in accordance with Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s four-week restrictions, which took effect Nov. 17.

The decision “comes in light of surging COVID-19 cases around the state, putting in jeopardy the ability to begin WIAA Season 2,” according to a news release issued by the WIAA.

“I was not surprised (about the WIAA’s decision),” LaBree said. “It is disappointing in that our student-athletes aren’t getting to train, compete or experience high school sports in any way. I do trust that the WIAA wants to start as soon as possible, but it has to make well-informed decisions, with health and safety coming first.”

Season 2 will end with regional culminating events on March 20. Season 3, which consists of traditional fall sports, is now scheduled to begin on March 15 (March 8 for football) and end on May 1. Season 4, which consists of traditional spring sports, will begin with practices on April 26 and conclude on June 12.

“While the executive board approved the framework for each WIAA season, flexibility remains at the local level due to the protocols approved at the Nov. 2 (executive board) meeting,” the news release states. “If less than 50 percent of schools in a classification are able to compete in a sport, in accordance with Department of Health guidelines, the executive board will make an adjustment to the scheduled season in order to allow the chance for greater participation.”

Guidance set forth by the Inslee and the Washington State Department of Health separate individual sports into low-, moderate- and high-risk categories, and earmarks individual counties with a three-tier system based on the COVID-19 benchmark statistics of cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period and percentage of positive tests during a week.

Currently, Clark County falls into the high-risk category. 

“I absolutely have concerns that the season could be cancelled altogether,” Camas boys wrestling coach Cory Vombaur said. “Right now we have very few students at school. It seems difficult to move from minimal students in school to a full-contact sport such as wrestling. However, I am aware that new data and new thoughts based on the data come forth pretty regularly, and that the WIAA is attempting to have sports in some capacity this year. I appreciate their efforts, and I hope they reach a decision that is safe for society.”

Only sports in the low- or moderate-risk categories can begin competition when a county is considered high risk. In Season 2, bowling, gymnastics and boys swimming and diving arel considered low- or moderate-risk sports. Basketball and wrestling fall under high risk.

“I am very optimistic that the WIAA will create opportunities this school year for all of our student athletes,” Camas boys basketball coach Ryan Josephson said. “Additionally, I think a lot will be learned from other states that continue to hold regular high school seasons. This will help the WIAA make informed decisions that ensure our sport seasons are the safest in the country when we get the chance to play. … What we are able to provide will once again be a different experience. Being creative and doing things in a different way is just part of operating through the pandemic.”

WIAA executive director Mick Hoffman wrote in a statement that student-athletes will return to competition “if  we work together and take the proper precautions. … We know this because it has already been done,” citing several examples of low transmission amongst large groups of high-school athletes, including the Seattle United Soccer Club, which had two of its 1,930 participants tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this year. 

Hoffman also pointed to a University of Wisconsin study, which found in July that approximately 68 percent of 3,243 student-athletes surveyed reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that would typically require medical intervention, a 37-percent increase from pre-pandemic levels.

“Parents can see the outsized toll this sudden change in life has taken on our kids. It has diminished our sense of joy, created anxiety over our safety and well-being and stolen what will soon be a full year of our lives,” Hoffman wrote. “Returning to competition will not be a cure-all, but in a time when students have become disconnected from their education, we know athletics and activities can help them re-engage.”

Thompson said his players “will do anything it takes to make this season happen.”

“We will follow every protocol and guideline that is thrown at us if it leads to a basketball season,” he said. “We have a sense of urgency on our team that we must handle the situation surrounding COVID-19 to the best of our ability if we want any chance of playing. The girls are ready to sacrifice social activities, they are ready to sacrifice indoor dining, they are ready to sacrifice anything it takes to stop COVID-19 from entering our program and shutting us down. The opportunity of playing a basketball season is so big that we will do anything it takes.”