A dozen days before they were to start practicing with no set plan in place to compete this fall season, the year’s latest batch of high school sports teams saw their seasons dramatically altered as New York continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.
While teams in fall sports deemed as “low” or “moderate” risk by the New York State Department of Health are still allowed to start practicing Sept. 21 and to compete as soon as they conduct the required number of practices, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association voted Wednesday to delay its “high” risk fall sports — football and volleyball, and competitive cheerleading’s fall season — to what executive director Robert Zayas termed a “second fall season” that will start March 1 of next year and run through the end of April.
Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that “high” risk sports could practice starting Sept. 21, but could not play until given further approval. Without knowing if competitions would be able to be played in 2020 in those sports, the NYSPHSAA acted Wednesday to put in place a plan to allow for cheerleading, football and volleyball athletes a better chance to compete before the end of the 2020-21 academic year.
“During a crisis like this, we have to be flexible,” Zayas said of a decision that will affect thousands of Section II athletes. “We have to be open to being innovative. We have to be open to being creative, and we have to be focused on doing what’s in the best interest of the student-athletes that we serve.”
Already this year in a state that has recorded approximately 445,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 30,000 deaths, according to a New York Times database, the end of NYSPHSAA’s winter sports season was canceled, the entirety of the spring season was wiped out and the start of the fall season has been delayed a month. While other fall sports remain on track to start practicing Sept. 21 and the state’s COVID-19 infection rate has been below 1% for more than a month, Zayas said the challenges of conducting “high” risk sports without knowing when competitions could, if ever, start this fall were too difficult.
“Over the course of the past two days, I have hosted seven Zoom meetings for nearly 500 athletic directors,” Zayas said Wednesday night during a Zoom conference with reporters. “And I have listened to the concerns of those athletic directors. I’ve listened to them express their questions and their concerns about high-risk sports. This decision is being made as a result of listening to our membership and attempting to assist them with the hosting of high-risk fall sports at some point during the 2020-21 school year.”
The sports that had their seasons postponed Wednesday and will now start practicing on March 1 of next year are scheduled to compete through the end of April. Meanwhile, the traditional spring season will see its start date moved from March 15 to April 19 to minimize overlap between the seasons.
Teams in those postponed fall sports, Zayas said, will be allowed to work out this fall, in accordance with state department of health regulations. Zayas also confirmed that NYSPHSAA will still not sponsor state tournaments for the sports postponed Wednesday.
All fall sports won’t have state tournaments during the 2020-21 school year, while NYSPHSAA still plans to sponsor state tournaments for winter and spring sports.
Released to the public at approximately 7:30 p.m., the decision to move several fall sports to next March was met with a range of emotions on social media and elsewhere.
There was disappointment and frustration.
Surprise, for sure, at a decision that few seemed to see coming Wednesday.
But there was relief, too.
“I am sitting here for the first time in a long time knowing we have a decision and there is a plan,” said Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake girls’ volleyball head coach Gary Bynon, whose Spartans have won seven state championships. “That is a good thing. Now it’s time to move forward.”
“I’m just excited that a decision was finally made after all this time,” Shenendehowa football head coach Brian Clawson said. “The last six months, it’s been a long wait for everyone. You know a lot of people in New York wanted to play football in the fall. We weren’t able to do that, but we’re excited that there will be a spring football season, and we’re hoping to be able to compete in a full regular season and sectionals.”
“It’s obviously hard for us, especially the past couple weeks on Friday night and Saturday, all day, watching the high school kickoff classics going off all across the country — especially in states with infection rates where some of them are 15 times higher than ours in New York,” said Amsterdam football head coach John Homich, who was hired in February. “Sitting back and watching them play, and we’re just sitting here for the past three or four weeks waiting for a decision, it’s tough. It was starting to take a toll on the kids.”
Homich added: “At least a decision has been finally made. That’s kind of relieving — a little bit.”
Stillwater football head coach Ian Godfrey said it won’t be easy to have a fall without football, especially after one in 2019 that saw his program win its first-ever Section II championship game.
But Godfrey also hasn’t had a chance to work, in any form, with his players since mid-March.
Getting those players ready to compete in games that, theoretically, could’ve been played as soon as in early October?
“It just seemed like a daunting task,” said Godfrey, who used “mad dash” to describe what was previously thought to be coming for area football teams.
“So, for me, this announcement is a little bit of a relief, if I’m being honest. It’s good to have the information, to have the answer,” Godfrey said. “It’s nice to know what direction we’re headed. I know some people will agree with it and some won’t, and that’s up to everyone’s opinion, but, for me, it’s a relief to know we’re moving the season to March.”
“If we were given 12 practices and then could play games [this fall], I don’t know if the players would be as prepared physically as they would be if we had an offseason,” said Clawson, whose Plainsmen won an area championship last year. “Every coach stresses weight training and how it kind of decreases injury. . . . What this does is give everyone a chance to get back into the whole weight-training routine, as well.”
For now, other fall sports are still slated to start practicing in less than two weeks. Section II Executive Director Ed Dopp said Section II “will have an announcement on the other fall sports by the end of the week,” but Schalmont athletic director Matt Ronca said his expectation remains that “low” and “moderate” risk fall sports will be played this year.
“We’re ready to roll,” Ronca said of the upcoming Sept. 21 start date for sports such as cross country and soccer.
Burnt Hills’ Bynon said he’s “happy” for the teams that will be able to play this fall, and he “will never forget that sadness when the kids couldn’t play in the spring.”
And, now, his attention will turn toward preparing for a volleyball season set to start in March.
“Our goal as coaches is to give the kids the best experience possible,” Bynon said, “and that’s what we will do.”
Stan Hudy, Jim Schiltz and Adam Shinder contributed to this report.