The start date for the fall sports season in New York has been delayed from Aug. 24 until Sept. 21 — at least.
According to a plan released Thursday from the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, that is the earliest area schools will be able to practice for fall sports this year, but the state association simultaneously released a plan in which all school sports for the 2020-21 academic year could shift to being played in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As the state considers reopening, it is unrealistic to believe athletic seasons can start on August 24th as originally scheduled,” said Paul Harrica, NYSPHSAA president, in a press release. “The priority will continue to be on the educational process and a return to learning in the safest way possible.”
To that end, if fall sports such as football and soccer are unable to start on Sept. 21 or cannot finish their seasons because of the pandemic, NYSPHSAA is prepared with a backup plan that will see a series of 10-week seasons start in early 2021. In that model, winter sports would run from Jan. 4 to March 13 in a campaign branded as Season I; fall sports move to March 1 to May 8 in Season II; and, spring sports play from April 5 to June 12 as Season III. Exceptions from the norm in terms of seasonal sport groups will see girls’ tennis participate in Season III, while it’s possible wrestling and competitive cheer could shift from Season I to competing in Season II or Season III because of their “high risk nature.”
The move to the Season I-II-III model will be made “at the discretion of the NYSPHSAA Officers and authorization from state officials, if the fall sports seasons are interrupted or impacted by COVID-19 crisis,” according to the NYSPHSAA. That means that a sport such as football could start this September, get halted because of health concerns, and resume in March. It also allows that some fall sports — such as cross country — could get in their season this fall, even if sports deemed as higher-risk sports are moved to next year.
“It's certainly not a good situation, but my goal as executive director is to give an opportunity to participate to every athlete in every sport," NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas said of the three-season plan Thursday during a conference call with reporters. "That's a better alternative than to tell students their season would be completely canceled."
That happened this past spring, after several postponements, when no sporting events took place. At the tail end of this past winter season, some regional and state competitions were called off due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It's a little nerve-wracking, because there's not enough answers yet to a lot of the questions that we have,” first-year Amsterdam football coach John Homich said. "My biggest fear right now is starting the season, getting the go-ahead to start in September, playing a game or two and then telling your team that the season's being postponed. But, reading through that whole memo and the one clause about being able to resume in the spring makes me feel a little bit better when taking everything into account. Still, it takes a toll, mentally, on your athletes."
"I think we've all learned how to face adversity, time and time again, since schools closed March 16," said Stillwater girls' soccer coach Christine Ihnatolya, whose program has won back-to-back Class C state championships. "The kids, the adults, we've all had to face a lot of adversity, a lot of stages and I think mentally and emotionally that made us stronger. Hopefully all athletes and coaches are able to adapt and just realize that if you have the opportunity to play, just be ecstatic that we've had this opportunity and make the best of it and just adjust as well as you can."
The 2020-21 fall sports season was scheduled to begin Aug. 24, but officers of the NYSPHSAA voted to delay the season's start following recommendation by the NYSPHSAA's COVID-19 Task Force. The Task Force took into consideration that schools in early September will just be settling into the educational format that they will be employing. Most schools are currently trying to figure what that format will be in the coronavirus environment.
“This will provide a little relief for school administrators as they prepare for the opening of their schools," Zayas said. "We thought adding four weeks would be beneficial to our school districts."
"I think it's the right thing to do," Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake field hockey coach Kelly Vrooman said. "I'm in education, as well. It makes sense. I thought this would probably be the case."
"It definitely helps not to jam [the start of the fall season] in there," Schenectady athletic director Steve Boynton said.
If the fall sports season is able to start on Sept. 21 and continue without issue, there will be no state tournaments played this year. As part of its announcement Thursday, the NYSPHSAA said there won’t be regional or state championships contested this fall.
Zayas said there has been no deadline set for a decision to begin the fall sports season on September 21 or press forward with plans for the three-season format which will include all sports played in 2021.
"There's no way to give a definitive timeline as far as moving to the condensed three-season format," Zayas said. "Things are so unpredictable right now. We need to examine readily available information."
In NYSPHSAA’s model for a plan in which all sports seasons take place in 2021, there is overlap between Season II and Season III.
"If I could add more weeks to the year, I certainly would," Zayas said. "If we have to go to the three-season plan, there will be an overlap in Season II and Season III. You can't start fall sports any earlier than March 1st and we have to have spring sports done by mid-June because of the Regents and graduations. It's a time constraint situation."
"That will bring its own challenges because there is a little bit of overlap with the sports," Ihnatolya said. "I think it's really going to be just a lot of people having to collaborate, work together from community members, coaches, players and the school. Everybody's really just going to have to work together on this."
The state has no rule that limits a student-athlete to one sport in a specific season. The Suburban Council, however, is among the league's in the state that does.
"That's something we may have to revisit," Boynton said.
"I'm a little nervous about us being a Class B school," Schalmont athletic director Matt Ronca said. "It's tough for athletes who will have to choose a sport. If that's the case, I hate to see that.”
Right now, though, a return of any high school athletics would likely be welcomed by area athletes and coaches. The NYSPHSAA’s goal Thursday was to take steps toward making that into a reality during such uncertain times.
“There,” Zayas said, “are so many variables.”
Reporters Stan Hudy, Michael Kelly and Adam Shinder contributed to this story.
Reach Jim Schiltz at [email protected] or @jim_schiltz on Twitter.