COVID-19 turns high school athletic schedule on its head

Football will be played in spring 2021

Washougal High School sophomore Peyton Robb records a base hit during the Panthers' 9-5 win over Mark Morris High School in the opening game of the 4A District tournament on Oct. 23, 2019. The 2020 prep slowpitch softball season is tenatatively set to begin in mid-September. (Post-Record file photo)

Camas High School golfer Evan Chen tees off during a match in the fall of 2019. The 2020-21 prep boys golf season is tentatively scheduled to begin in mid-September. (Post-Record file photo)

Washougal High School sophomore Savea Mansfield (left) and freshman Sidney Boothby run during a cross country race in September 2019. The 2020 prep cross country season is tentatively scheduled to begin in mid-September. (Post-Record file photo)

Dave Hajek will have to get used to having his fall afternoons free for the first time since 1981. He knows that adjustment won’t be easy to make, but it’s for a good cause.

As part of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) modified sports calendar for the 2020-21 school year, football has been postponed until spring of 2021.

“It definitely will be different,” said Hajek, Washougal High School’s (WHS) football coach. “I was joking with my wife — I said I haven’t had a fall off since I was an eighth-grader because I’ve always been involved in football. For those of us who have been doing this for a long time, it will be really strange to not have football in the fall. But this is not about me. It’s about keeping people safe, and giving kids a chance to play football.”

For the upcoming school year, the WIAA has done away with the traditional fall, winter and spring season designations in favor of a four-season alignment.

In addition to football, three other traditional fall sports — girls soccer, 1B/2B boys soccer and volleyball — have also been postponed to early spring 2021 for “Season 3.”

“I think it’s great,” Camas High School (CHS) athletic director Rory Oster said. “Pushing the sports back gives us a chance to make a plan for what’s going to happen and gives the kids the best chance to compete. Based on the current guidelines, it was far-fetched to think we could provide those opportunities in the fall. It’s a whole new world. There’s no playbook. It’s been an interesting juggling act. We’ll see.”

Four other fall sports — cross country, slowpitch softball, boys golf and boys tennis — have been moved to “alternative seasons,” which give schools the option to compete in a regular season prior to the season the WIAA offers that sport’s state championship. The WIAA traditionally offers alternative seasons for golf and tennis in the fall before state championships at the end of spring.

Girls swimming and diving was officially moved to “Season 3.” Original plans had the sport as a possibility for Season 1, pending guidance from the State Department of Health.

State championships for cross country and slowpitch softball will be held in “Season 3,” and the tennis and golf state tournaments will be held in “Season 4.”

New WHS cross country coach Tracey Stinchfield is optimistic that her sport can be offered in a safe and responsible manner this fall.

“I think it’s very possible,” Stinchfield said. “During our summer practice sessions, the kids have been very respectful about keeping 6 feet apart and wearing masks. We are very excited (to start in the fall). The kids love having a goal to work towards. We’re talking about having dual meets, with the varsity runners at one of the schools and the junior varsity runners at the other school, so we’re dealing with a relatively small number of kids at each place.”

Traditional winter sports will take place in “Season 2,” which is expected to begin in late December or early January. Traditional spring sports will occur during “Season 4” to end the school year.

“Since March, the philosophy of our association has been to allow students every chance to participate,” WIAA Executive Director Mick Hoffman said in a news release. “We’ve asked our executive board and planning committees to be as creative as possible in allowing for those opportunities. These are tough and unprecedented decisions to make, but it has been inspiring to see so many people around the state come together to work on behalf of students.”

The WIAA executive board and planning committees are working under the Return-To-Activity Guidelines supported and co-authored by the National Federation of High Schools, Washington Department of Health and the Washington State Governor’s Office, as well as sport-specific guidelines set forth by WIAA committees made up of coaches, athletic directors, students, officials and local health professionals.

“The No. 1 priority for everyone is the safety of the kids and the coaches, and it doesn’t look like (playing in the fall) is a safe scenario for us to be involved in,” Hajek said. “The worst thing that could happen would be for kids to get sick and spread (the virus) to their family members and compound the situation.”

CHS volleyball coach Michelle Ford had a mixed reaction when she heard that her sport had been pushed back to the spring.

“With everything going on, talking to my athletic director, we knew there was a chance that fall sports would just be cancelled and not moved to another timeframe,” Ford said, “so when I read the news, I was a little shocked. However, I am happy there is still a chance of having a season, especially for my seniors. My girls contact me saying they are so bummed, and just want to get back in the gym and play.”

Hoffman said the situation is “still fluid,” however, and that participation in any fall sport will depend on the counties’ progression through reopening phases laid out by Governor Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan. State Department of Health guidelines require counties to be in Phase 3 of the Safe Start plan for low-risk sports to occur. Currently 22 of the state’s 39 counties, including Clark County, are in Phase 2 or lower.

“At some point in the next couple weeks, I’d bet this gets reworked again, because I think it’s a longshot (for any of the fall sports) to happen in the fall,” Oster said. “And the other monkey wrench in all of this is if our district decides to start the year with remote learning, we won’t (field teams). If it’s deemed unsafe for kids to learn in person, it’s unsafe for them to compete. If teachers can’t come to school, I’m not going to ask them to coach.”

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