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High schools waiting for guidance from state as start of fall practices loom

Mechanicsburg huddles after a victory against Kenton Ridge on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019, at Mechanicsburg. David Jablonski/Staff
Mechanicsburg huddles after a victory against Kenton Ridge on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019, at Mechanicsburg. David Jablonski/Staff

Fall practices start Saturday for high schools across the state. As of Wednesday afternoon, many schools plan to kick off the season on time despite the uncertainty created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Athletic directors have been dealing with curveballs from the state and the Ohio High School Athletic Association for months and saw another one Tuesday when the OHSAA announced the suspension of school vs. school scrimmages in three contact sports: football, soccer and field hockey.

“We’re disappointed in that,” Ross High School Athletic Director Jake Richards said, “but we also understand we’re looking at the long run here and trying to maximize the chance we actually have a season — not only this fall but moving on to the winter and spring. We feel if we have to sacrifice scrimmages up front, that’s a win. Fingers crossed that we can get a handle on it and move forward with the fall season.”

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Ross athletes will start practice Saturday. The same goes for athletes at Kenton Ridge High School in Springfield.

“That’s the plan,” athletic director Kris Spriggs said. “We have our protocols for COVID-19 we established with the school district. Our teams have been doing stuff since the beginning of June, and as the governor’s office makes adjustments, it trickles down to us and we make adjustments.”

Schools have been looking for more specific announcements from Gov. Mike DeWine, who has not approved fall competition between schools in football, soccer, field hockey or cross country. He was asked Tuesday by reporters if he had anything new to tell schools about those sports, and DeWine said, “Not today, I can’t. These are tough calls for coaches, parents and the governor.”

The lack of guidance has been frustrating for schools.

“I understand there are literal life-and-death consequences to all this stuff,” Richards said. “I understand sometimes sports aren’t on the forefront, but as we get closer to Saturday, the official start date, it’s becoming more and more pertinent that we get some answers.”

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Schools are running out of time. Soccer season is scheduled to start Aug. 21. That’s the first day teams can compete against one another. Field hockey starts the same day. The first Friday night of football season is Aug. 28.

“That’s the frustrating part,” Spriggs said. “Are they going to let everybody start and then shut them down? Boys and girls soccer, field hockey, football and even cross country haven’t been approved to compete against other schools. We’re going to start practicing and hope for the best.”

Meanwhile, schools are also considering the question of whether they will allow sports teams to compete if classes are being conducted online. Tecumseh and Yellow Springs are among the schools that have announced they will have an all-online first quarter. Middletown students will start the school year learning from home. Other schools are still trying to decide what to do.

Richards said Butler County superintendents met Tuesday to discuss what to do with athletics if schools are closed.

“It’s such a fluid situation,” Richards said, “and we’re getting more information by the hour. It’s really tough. There are some counties and organizations that have come out and said one thing, and then you get more information and have to retract it. That’s a very real concern. If we do go entirely remotely, how do you justify bringing kids together for any extracurricular activities?”

Tecumseh athletes will play despite the school being closed, and they’ll start practice Saturday, Athletic Director Craig Eier said. He said the Central Buckeye Conference had a five-hour meeting Monday to plan for the season ahead, but there are still many unknowns.

“I guess I’m relieved we’re going to have non-contact sports moving forward,” Eier said, “and I think we’ll be ready for that. I think we’ll be OK there. The contact sports are the big unknown. From my end, the frustrating part is they get to start practice without being cleared to play games. I just hope it’s not a false hope we’re sending to kids and families.”

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While the full-contact sports wait and hope to get approval to play, competition in golf, girls tennis and volleyball has already been approved. The OHSAA is also talking about moving field hockey and/or cross country into the low/non-contact category.

As for the suspension of scrimmages for contact sports, OHSAA Executive Director Bob Goldring said he doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon.

“There remains the possibility that no scrimmages will be permitted in the contact sports of football, soccer and field hockey,” Goldring wrote in a memo sent to school administrators and posted on the OHSAA website.

This week, the OHSAA sent a survey to administrators to gauge their opinion on fall sports, asking among other things if they should start on time, be delayed or cancelled all together. The OHSAA has proceeded all summer as if fall sports will start on time.

“Our discussions with the Governor’s Office are clear,” Goldring said. “If we want our student-athletes to learn the lifelong lessons and receive the social, emotional and physical benefits that the privilege of participating in education-based interscholastic athletics programs provide, we all have to be accountable for following all mandates and requirements. By not following the mandates and requirements, we are putting our student-athletes at risk of not only contracting and/or spreading COVID-19 but also at risk of losing the season for themselves, their families, their teammates, their schools and their communities. Mandates and requirements put into place must be followed in order for the Governor’s Office to continue to allow us to participate.

“To that end, the OHSAA is working to finalize contest day mandates and requirements that are to be strictly enforced, and our administrators, coaches and student-athletes will be held accountable for non-compliance. So as to not cause alarm, these mandates and requirements will be to elevate many of the recommendations that were provided in the OHSAA Return to Play Recommendations document to the level of mandates and requirements and should not require wholesale modifications to your game-day protocol.”