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.