Shuffled Sports Schedule Leaves Fall Programs in New Position

AUTUMN TRADITIONS, such as the annual Bell Game between crosstown rivals Justice High School and Falls Church High School, will be put on hold until February following the Virginia High School League’s decision to postpone fall sports until early 2021. (Photo: J. Michael Whalen)

The Virginia High School League’s decision to have the fall sports season run in the early part of the spring has brought a mix of relief and wariness toward the obstacles still ahead for the coaches of local programs.

VHSL’s executive committee opted to use the third model its staff had proposed during its July 27 meeting out of concern for the spreading coronavirus. With that decision, fall sports will take place from Feb. 15 – May 1, with winter sports going from Dec. 14 until Feb. 20 and spring sports starting April 12 and concluding June 26.

Though Dr. Billy Haun, the organization’s executive director, said none of the dates are etched in stone during a press conference following the announcement. He noted that it’s all dependent on how Virginia progresses through the pandemic.

In a statement that joined the announcement, Haun said, “We all understand the physical and mental health benefits of getting our students back to a level of participation. The Condensed Interscholastic Plan leaves open the opportunity to play all sports in all three seasons if Virginia moves beyond Phase III and/or Phase III guidelines are revised and High Risk Activities are allowed.

“This plan also allows schools the opportunity to open the year and get school started and deal with issues such as schedules, academic plans, transportation, dealing with possible outbreaks of COVID in the school.”

All sports are affected by the abridged schedule that will compress schedules down to about 60 percent of their normal length. Multi-sport athletes who are in the middle of a deep playoff run for one sport also risk missing out on games during the 2020-21 sports seasons. Normally, for example, an athlete who had made the state tournament in one sport would only miss early season practices or even scrimmages in their next sport.

But fall sports have undergone the most drastic alterations, with their sports beginning nearly six months into the school year. Coaches, however, are just happy that the potential for a season still remains.

“I believe VHSL made the correct decision to at least give all sports an opportunity to play this school year,” Adam Amerine, George Mason High School’s football coach, wrote to the News-Press. “We obviously need people to be responsible and continue to practice good hygiene habits so we get the chance to get on the field and back in school as soon as possible for this model to work.”

Said Aziz, Falls Church High School’s football coach, believes it’s a coin flip whether or not the season will actually happen. To him, it hinges upon a vaccine being made available in time.

Jeff Buck, Mason’s cross country coach, wrote to the News-Press to say he was disappointed about the delay, but wasn’t surprised due to the state of the pandemic. Mason’s volleyball coach Derek Baxter also “read the tea leaves” about the delayed start, and was just happy there’s a plan in place since he didn’t want to have to say goodbye to the team’s eight seniors early.

The weather is the most obvious change to the schedule. A season that normally starts in the August heat and ends in the autumn chill of November is currently planned to bridge the transition between winter and spring in 2021. But it’s not causing too much concern for coaches.

Mild winters over the past few years have curbed any excitement from Aziz that players would be competing in the snow. Meanwhile, Buck mentioned that athletes tend to under-hydrate in colder temperatures, so it’s something to watch out for, as is keeping warm for their competitions.

One sport that’s dependent on ideal conditions is golf. Seth Richardson coaches the team at Falls Church High and, under normal circumstances, doesn’t see why the sport is lumped in with other fall programs because its season mostly takes place during the end of the summer. With the shift to a February start, it not only has his athletes competing in the cold weather, but he fears it could overlap with the maintenance most local courses do at that time of the year.

“Golf is one of the few sports where you can truly keep social distance at all times. I have played golf every month during the Covid-19 crisis and have never been fearful for my health nor my safety,” Richardson wrote to the News-Press. “Golfing for high school golfers is one of the easier ways for them to maintain a sense of normalcy. I only wish that the scheduling could have stayed ‘normal’ so that my athletes could have their regular August routine uninterrupted.”

Darrell General, the cross country and distance track coach at Marshall High School, sees a different problem with the lack of fall season.

Some of his athletes are banking on a strong senior year to pique the interest of college recruiters. The pressure had already been turned up after their spring track season was lost due to the public health emergency. Now, the Thanksgiving weekend capstone where students usually hear from colleges is also not an option.

For his distance runners, the regular three-mile races of the cross country season help them prepare for the speedier one and two-mile races during winter and spring track, General said. With the order flip-flopped due to the pandemic, General continued, he believes they’ll have a harder time gauging their conditioning.

That’s not an issue for Aziz’s program at Falls Church High, since he doesn’t have any top-tier athletes who would forgo a senior season to train with their college by springtime. And Division 2 and Division 3 schools recruit up until their season starts, according to Aziz, so those offers are still in play.

Yet preparations are seen as a challenge to some. Aziz thinks the lack of two-a-days will leave the team cramming a preseason in during the school year. And Buck said the lack of base training mileage will be harder to build up for runners as well without summer conditionings.

Amerine, on the other hand, said his team will be better prepared come February due to more team meetings, conditioning and team activities in the winter. And the year-round nature of club volleyball has Baxter thinking his team will spend less time getting into competition shape and can jump right into the season.

The logistics coaches are responsible for negotiating behind the scenes hasn’t dampened any optimism from the students’ perspectives. All coaches, including Richardson’s golfers, are enthusiastic that their season’s are being given a shot at happening.

A bonus positive, if sports can resume as planned, is the new high school in the City of Falls Church will be completed by the time fall sports are supposed to start.

“[Senior] Walt [Roou] noted that if everything works out and we play, we’ll hopefully be entering the field from the new school, which would be very exciting and something I didn’t even think about,” Amerine said.