Marian Central players wait out a weather delay last season at St. Rita. With the COVID-19 pandemic expected to continue through the fall, state athletic associations are working to set guidelines for fall sports.
Marian Central players wait out a weather delay last season at St. Rita. With the COVID-19 pandemic expected to continue through the fall, state athletic associations are working to set guidelines for fall sports. — Shaw Media file photo

Guidance released Tuesday by the National Federation of State High School Associations offered the first step to what high school sports could look like during the upcoming school year, according to one area athletic director.

He expects more localized direction soon.

"It's tough for us to know what to do until the IHSA puts something out," Marengo AD Nate Wright said. "What this document does is it gives us a head start on what are some of the things we have to have in place, precautions we have to make, guidelines for us to share with coaches."

The document, which offered no timelines but is quite specific otherwise, offered a three-phased plan as to how state associations can consider opening high school athletics during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wright expects the IHSA to come out with a similar plan that matches more closely with Illinois' five-phase reopening plan. At this point, all regions of Illinois are on pace to reach Phase 3, which allows for gatherings of 10 or fewer people, by May 29.

"I'm assuming the IHSA has proposals that they are sitting on, waiting for the end of this stay-at-home order," Wright said. "I think that on the 29th you will see something that involves the potential for small group gatherings doing something, like strength and conditioning. I doubt whether we'll have open gyms the 29th, probably not drills with more than one kid for basketball. I doubt whether we go from zero to 60. You look at a sport like football, you're not going to be able to do a lot of sport-specific activities with the sharing of one ball."

Some guidelines indeed will offer challenges unique to each sport. Phase 1 of the NFHS guidelines, for instance, stipulates that there must be a minimum of 6 feet between each individual at all times. Multiple players cannot touch a ball. Phase 1 limits gatherings to 10 or fewer people, Phase 2 to 50 or fewer outdoors, 10 or fewer inside.

"Some certain sports like golf can handle it; tennis is a possibility," Benet AD Gary Goforth said. "But volleyball, you go up for a spike and block, you're violating social distancing and sharing a ball. What do you do with a goalkeeper in soccer? If it's kicked, is that allowable using the same ball? Volleyball, you could put gloves on all the kids, but it doesn't take away the respiratory concerns. If you have two kids playing the same tennis match, do you let them use the same ball? Are throw-ins in soccer eliminated? Cross country, the biggest problem is the start and finish.

"The sports that would have the possibility of respiratory droplets from one kid to another – football, soccer, definitely basketball – are a concern. I think outside sports will be easier to handle, with the exception of football. Football will be a tough one."

DeKalb AD Peter Goff agreed that the guidelines could be tricky for some sports – but, at least, it would allow kids to compete.

"Golf and tennis, sports like that could happen with those restrictions," Goff said. "Baseball and softball, you stop to wash the ball after each at-bat, games could take six hours. But if it's going to let us play, we will do what we need to do to make things happen for our kids."

The NFHS broke down the sports into three categories by risk – higher risk, moderate risk and lower risk. Lower risk sports included swimming and cross country, moderate included soccer, volleyball and basketball, higher included football and wrestling.

Goforth said he thinks certain sports could return earlier than others, unlike the spring when the IHSA canceled all spring sports state tournaments at once.

Football, in particular, seems to be in a bind under the NFHS plan. Even at Phase 3, only gatherings of up to 50 people are allowed. Realistically, one football team alone could have greater than 50 players.

"In spring, it was all or nothing, canceling all sports. This might change with a phased approach," Yorkville AD Luke Engelhardt said. "I know that you look at outside sports like golf and cross country, they do seem safer according to the guidelines. Having a phased approach to bring kids back, resuming in small groups, that is something we're probably going to see. If that happens, that some sports resume and some not, it's tough to think that far ahead. It's tough to even consider going into the fall without the sport of football and the Friday night lights."

One of the biggest concerns Engelhardt sees in the immediate is weight training and usage of facilities. Phases 1 and 2 of the NFHS guidelines allows for workouts conducted in pods of students with the same five to 10 students working out together, and requires that coaches and students be given a temperature check before working out.

"A big thing is how to limit people in those facilities and what will cleanliness look like going forward, and a large part is those temperature checks. That will be something looking forward will be the norm," Engelhardt said. "We're likely going to see a lot of those parts from this document in place, like face masks and temperature checks for athletes before practice and workouts, presented as athletic gear."

Engelhardt said they'll do whatever it takes, a thought echoed by each of the ADs as they continue to wait on a return in an ever-changing situation.

"All the ADs in the state are waiting to see what happens at the governor level and then what is told to [IHSA Executive Director] Craig Anderson and the board of directors. That's what we're waiting on," Goff said. "We have a million balls up in the air, but the one ball that has to stay up in the air is the safety of the students and the community."