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07-09-2020 Tri-City Area Sports

Hartford Press Box By Jerrod Birmele

No change from the MHSAA – maybe no news is good news?

There is no denying that the coronavirus, and the current pandemic, continues to consume and dominate our everyday lives not only here in the Tri-City area, but worldwide for that matter. And while we are seeing signs of hope that professional sports may be coming back in the near future, the high school scene remains remarkably murky. An update from the Michigan High School Athletic Association recently continues that trend in the near term.

In an update sent to member schools on July 1, MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl brought everyone up-to-date on the current condition of the direction of high school athletics in Michigan. The opening sentence of the update sums up the current thoughts of the association, stating, “first of all, there have been no changes or updates to the Summer Guidance #2 document from June 9.”

In a recent edition of the Tri-City Record, this column detailed all of the current guidelines each sport must take this summer under the current restrictions in place. While we will not get into those specifics once again, some sports, including football in terms of fall sports, have a higher risk associated with it than other fall sports. We encourage you to look back in the archives, or go onto the MHSAA website, to get the most detailed information.

Continuing on, the MHSAA adds, “All of us must continue to follow both the letter and spirit of this guidance document in doing the right things now to create the fall, winter and spring sports opportunities we want.” That makes it rather clear that the association is working within the Governor’s Return to School Roadmap that was introduced in late-June, in which the MHSAA was tasked with coming up with three very key bullet points to return to athletics safely: plans, procedures and protocols.

Looking ahead, the key to in-school learning and the safe return to educational athletics will proceed best when the entire state is in stages 5 or 6 of the announced plan. However, recent events have led to a setback in certain areas of the state where localized coronavirus outbreaks continue to be detected, including in the Grand Rapids and Lansing areas. The MHSAA agrees, adding, “We must continue to do the right things now in all parts of the state to reach and remain in phases 5 and 6 for August and beyond.” This is easier said than done, unfortunately.

Luckily, the MHSAA has been working on contingency plans since the pandemic broke out in earnest in March, and those concepts have become the foundation of the plan under the road map. Right now, only three concepts are being brought forward, but there will likely be more guiding principles in the months ahead.

The number one guiding concept is that the MHSAA’s current plans are to play all scheduled fall sports in the fall, as is.

The number two guiding concept is that the MHSAA will do everything within their control to safely have all three high school sports seasons in the upcoming calendar year (2020-21), even if conditions were to change that require creativity to provide those three seasons. They added, “We owe it to our kids to plan this way, especially during these uncertain days of the pandemic.”

Finally, the number three guiding concept is something of a contingency that has been making the rounds throughout the last several weeks and would include the swap of fall and spring sports seasons this school year. This is due to concerns with indoor sports, including volleyball and girls swimming and diving, along with differing views on the status of football. However, as of this point, the plan going forward includes a normal slate of sports in their normal seasons, even if it means having to be flexible in how those seasons are conducted.

The MHSAA will be meeting virtually with leadership of fall sport coaches associations and MIAAA (Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association) representatives on a sport-by-sport basis in the coming days and weeks to provide updates, exchange ideas and kick feedback and input around. All of these organizations will provide important feedback and input, and will help guide the MHSAA’s planning and decision making going forward.

Most importantly, the MHSAA added that circumstances, data and decisions made at the professional and collegiate levels with their set fall schedules, along with high school associations in other states, will be valuable and instructive in what the MHSAA plans will be come fall. Their goal is to ensure that they have the most current, accurate picture and data and give leadership at the school level adequate lead time to prepare and plan.

Personally, I do not envy athletic directors, like our own Nick Blackmer, or coaches for that matter in this current health climate. While the student-athletes are currently out doing summer workouts preparing like we will run cross-country or play football, soccer or volleyball like normal, there are more questions than answers. Administrators and coaches need time to plan, and if that includes sports this fall, they need every little iota of time to check every box, and ensure they are able to provide a safe environment for their student-athletes, even as they try to create some “normal” and prepare for competition.

All I can say is stay tuned, because the conditions are changing day-to-day. The situation evolves, and we do not know which direction it will go in next. While all of us would like to see high school sports this year, health and safety of everyone should be the top priority. High school sports are that time of a young man or young lady’s life that allows them the opportunity to grow and learn. It allows them to be with their friends and represent their community and school with pride.

Hopefully, the opportunity of educational high school athletics will not be taken away this year like it was in the spring for the latest graduating Indians. The anger and heart break they had to endure left us all shook. We can only encourage our great Hartford fan base to be leaders, and do their absolute best to keep our community healthy. Maybe, just maybe, some normalcy will return in the months ahead. But, we must all work together, as one, to achieve this outcome.

As always, GO INDIANS!

Watervliet Press Box by John Oliphant

Sports during a pandemic

Governor Gretchen Whitmer released a “Return to School Roadmap” last week which includes information for schools, superintendents, and boards of education. The roadmap handed the MHSAA the task to create plans, procedures and protocols for the return of athletics for all Michigan schools, and they are deeply engaged in those plans to bring back athletics safely.

Within that roadmap Whitmer asked the MHSAA to investigate the idea of swapping spring and fall sports seasons. That is, start baseball and softball in the fall and play football and volleyball in the spring. The concept was mentioned here before as a long-shot possibility and it’s hard to imagine much enthusiasm for the idea at the MHSAA, not to mention in schools and with athletes and parents. The plan is for the MHSAA to have a proposal ready for the governor later this month.

One big argument against this approach is if they make the swap and the virus stays viral through the fall it’s entirely possible we could lose two consecutive spring seasons. It’s important to keep in mind what the MHSAA stated near the end of their latest re-opening update: “The only certainty we have had since March is the need to flexible and nimble in light of the public health situation and its ever-changing impact on schools.”

Meanwhile it remains a challenge to socially distance during athletic activities so the MHSAA created guidelines and rules applicable to all sports.

Physical contact like handshakes, high-fives, fist bumps, and hugs should not be allowed. All equipment, including balls, should be cleaned during practices and after final use. All personal clothing, towels and equipment must be cleaned at home, and students must be encouraged to shower and wash their workout clothing immediately upon returning home.

Individual drills requiring the use of athletic equipment are permissible, but the equipment should be cleaned prior to use by the next individual. Resistance training (weightlifting) should be emphasized through the use of body weight and resistance bands.

Guidelines for individual sports vary depending on the level of expected contact. For instance, distancing is enough for cross-country and sideline cheer teams. Cross-country runners shouldn’t wear masks but everyone else should. Soccer and volleyball teams need to avoid contact and clean the balls periodically.

For football it’s easier to quote the MHSAA: Drills are allowed that keep all players physically distant; there should be no physical contact or close proximity of players. Common equipment, such as the ball, must be cleaned as permitted during a practice or workout. Contact with other players is not allowed, and there should be no use of tackling dummies/ shields/ sleds. Protective equipment other than helmets is prohibited; helmets may not be shared.

The MHSAA has such guidelines for every sport that might work out this summer. View from the Press Box will keep Panther athletes and fans updated as the summer progresses and the situation continues to develop.

Coloma Press Box By Dave Vollrath

Getting to know Coloma head football coach, Joe Stephens

The State of Michigan is still in some form of lock down that limits the number of activities residents are able to enjoy. Virtually all of the summer sports programs children are usually deeply involved in with their parents this time of year have been canceled, and most of the sports enjoyed on television are still in the planning stages of coming back to action.

All this being said, this would be a great time to sit down with some Comet varsity coaches to find out a little more about them; what makes them tick, what compels them to volunteer for a job where they could be held up to ridicule from disgruntled parents and fans. This week Coloma Press Box will start this series by getting to know Coloma’s head varsity football coach, Joe Stephens who has been teaching and coaching high school football for almost 20 years, with 12 of those years here as a Comet.

This is part one of a 2-part interview with Coach Joe Stephens. This week we find out about Joe’s football background and his thoughts on coaching. Next week we will find out more about the coach’s family, and activities outside of football.

There is still much discussion on how to go about making all three sports seasons in Michigan happen, and also keep everyone as safe from the COVID-19 virus as possible. Part of this discussion is a serious possibility of moving the contact sports, mainly football, to spring instead of the fall. This would be a radical move, as everyone thinks football has to be played in the fall.

The Tri-City Record (TCR) asked Coach Stephens what he thought of the idea of moving his sport to March, April, and May. He answered, “Moving football to the spring is an interesting concept. I would be all for it if they could guarantee that the MHSAA can offer all three seasons of sports this year. I do not think it would be equitable to move football to the spring and have those traditional spring sports moved to the fall, only to have them get canceled again, due to the COVID-19 concerns. That scenario would make it so that the spring sports students in the class of 2021, would essentially lose their entire varsity spring sports career, because they have already lost their junior year season to the virus.”

When asked besides the coronavirus what are the benefits and challenges of moving football to the spring Coach replied, “An advantage of having spring football would be that the kids would be in school for the beginning of the season. Designing early season practices around summer activities is often a challenge for freshmen who do not know how high school athletics works. It would be nice to be coaching in the spring because the weather would be improving as the season progressed as opposed to it worsening, as it does in the fall. The spring sports coaches and our AD [Athletic Director] are used to having to navigate around the spring break, but this would be a whole new challenge for spring football. The traditional spring sports can just not schedule games or practices if it so chooses. The football schedule however, is set in stone from week to week because of how the MHSAA playoff system works. If football is moved to the spring, I would imagine a game would have to be played on the Friday during break, and we would have to be sure our players are ready for it. That could mean that our coaches are communicating with our parent group to make sure all of our kids are fed and have transportation to practice all week.”

TCR asked, “Where did your love of football come from?” Coach Stephens responded, “I love all sports, but football is special to me because of the diversity of the people that it takes to have a successful football team. I am a people person and football requires more management of people than other sports, to be successful. Everyone can use their individual strengths to make a positive contribution. We need big guys, fast guys, tough guys, and smart guys, and all need to come together and sacrifice their individual success for the good of the team.”

Coach Stephens also states that being a part of a good football program requires kids to learn the idea of sacrificing short term joy for long term fulfillment; gets our young men ready for society in a way that is different from the rest of their education.

TCR question: Do you have a football figure who you believe taught you the most? Coach answered, “I learned a lot about leading a coaching staff from John Winkler, who was my high school baseball coach and who I started coaching football for back in 2002. We were fortunate to have really good players. In my six years with him we were 62-11, lost a state championship game at Ford Field, and made it to another state semi-final game in the Superior Dome. A lot of coaches would have had success with those players, but I feel like one of the reasons for our consistency was that Coach Winkler let his coaches own their spot in the program and we had no staff turnover. We all had a voice in our meetings, and we fought with each other over what we thought would help our kids. Also, he didn’t get defensive when we disagreed with him, he listened and we adapted, or he listened and convinced us why his way was better. We went out to practice every Monday united, and got our kids to buy into the fact that if we played the way we were supposed to play, we could win every game. Now I try to let my coaching staff have that same kind of ownership in the program that I felt that I had under Coach Winkler.”

Part 2 of the Coach Stephens interview will be in next week’s edition.

Comets hire new boys soccer coach

Coloma Comet athletic director, Wendy Goodline, recently announced that Joe Schmidt has been hired to take over the boys soccer head coaching duties, for the season that is supposed to begin this fall. Coach Schmidt will fill one of two vacant varsity head coaching jobs.

AD Goodline is still searching for a head girls varsity coach to lead the basketball program. This will be the third stint as a varsity coach for Schmidt. He most recently coached both the boys and girls soccer teams at Lake Michigan Catholic, from 2013-2018. Coach Schmidt was out of coaching the last two years to help raise his own young children.

Press Box Player of the Week!

By Dave Vollrath

This week Tri-City Record is deviating from our normal selection of a student-athlete for Player of the Week, as we recognize an impressive accomplishment by Coloma teacher and cross-country coach Courtney Churchill.

It was noted that Coach Churchill had recently posted on social media that she had completed going out for a daily run that had reached 100 straight days. That would be impressive for anyone under normal circumstances. But for a mother of four and still juggling her virtual classroom activities along with keeping her own kids active yet under control while on COVID-19 lockdown, it was an accomplishment worthy of some recognition.

In addition to her own running she stated that more than half of the 100 days running she had one or both of her two youngest children in a cart that she pushed along her route, adding to the physical exertion necessary. Courtney and her husband Mike Churchill, who is the Coloma High School Principal, have four children at home, ages 1, 4, 12, and 15.

The streak began modestly as most streaks of this nature do. Courtney began running in March with a running buddy who was looking for inspiration, and the coach needing to get fully committed to running again. Courtney states that after a few days running she realized how good it was for her soul and mental outlook, and decided she would set a goal to run every day until the COVID-19 virus had run its course and the quarantine was lifted.

She then stated that once she was around the 60-day mark, that’s when she decided that she would set a goal of running for 100 straight days. On June 23 she announced on Facebook that she had completed that goal.

It is quite an accomplishment worthy of recognition because all runners know that there are some days when you just don’t feel like it, period. Some days you really have to dig deep within yourself to find the energy to overcome your brain that’s telling you to take a day off, please!

Coach Churchill is continuing her daily jogs; her shortest runs have been two miles, out to a longest mark of 14 miles. She is currently working on shorter runs in trying to increase her overall speed and lower her 5K times. This accomplishment certainly has to be an inspiration to her team. It’s rare to have a coach not only tell you what you need to do but actually go out and show you how it’s done.

We say, well done Coach! You are certainly an inspiration to this writer and hopefully many more runners as well. Congratulations on being named the performer of the week!


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