Playing in the Pandemic

Playing in the Pandemic

COVID-19 impact on high school athletics locally

By Tom Spencer
Current Contributor

Only time will tell if historians will mark the 2020-21 Michigan High School Athletic Association sports seasons with an asterisk.

It is pretty clear now, however, that 2019-20 already has the reference mark, noting the lack of an ending for most winter sports and the lack of spring sports entirely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In early March of last year, boys and girls basketball playoffs were indefinitely “postponed,” and spring sports were cancelled altogether as the pandemic commenced, leaving graduating seniors without their final interscholastic season experience.

“The student-athletes will always remember the impact that government restrictions, imposed due to COVID-19, took on their schooling and their sports participation,” says Steve Graetz, athletic director and assistant principal for Benzie Central High School/Middle School. “They will never forget the disappointment when a two-week pause beginning on March 13, 2020, turned into four weeks, and then turned into the rest of the 2019-20 school year—especially the Class of 2020.” 

Not the case this year, though.

 “Our seniors this year got to experience everything a high school student-athlete in Michigan would normally experience in a school year,” he continues. “Of course, with it came very unfamiliar and challenging new protocols to follow.”

Those protocols included wearing a face-covering during games, weekly testing, and even rubbing a sanitizing wipe over a volleyball after each point.

“Aside from the unorthodox calendar that caused so many new scheduling headaches and last-minute cancellations—requiring a super-size eraser and a couple of extra Excedrin—this year was not unbearable,” Graetz acknowledges. “Kids will remember the 100 long, dark days between the last fall competition and our first winter competition.”

Dark Days of Winter
When fall sports began in mid-August of last year, it was understood by all involved that there was always the possibility of a few student-athletes—or perhaps a whole team—needing to quarantine because of COVID-19 illness and/or exposure. Schools worked with local health departments to quickly contact trace and decide, on a case-by-case basis, what the appropriate steps were. 

Some teams in our area were able to get through an entire regular season without any problems, only to be tripped up at the very end, as cases began to rise in late fall—for instance, after winning their District, Leland volleyball, a perennial state contender, had to withdraw from the Regional playoffs, due to too many of their student-athletes being exposed to someone who had tested positive. The same was true of Frankfort’s and Benzie’s volleyball teams, which had to withdraw before their first round of District playoffs; Benzie’s football team was missing many starters in their playoff game, and Frankfort football advanced one week in the playoffs when their opponent forfeited, before being forced to forfeit themselves. Additionally, Benzie was missing multiple runners at cross country Regionals, which was moved from Benzie to Buckley at the last minute, because of the number of cases at the school.

Meanwhile, at the state level, many fall sports—cross country, boys tennis, boys soccer, girls golf—were able to complete their scheduled seasons and post-season playoffs, though other sports were not so lucky.

Following Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s direction in November 2020, as COVID-19 cases began to rise during Michigan’s “second wave,” all school sports practices and contests were suspended. That meant delaying the start of indoor winter high school sports—though the outdoor, non-contact MHSAA-sanctioned sport of alpine skiing was left alone—plus the fall sports of volleyball, girls swimming and diving, and football were all halted, with fall playoff tournaments later restarting in January alongside a pilot COVID-testing program.

But coaches, athletic directors, student-athletes, and officials were in limbo after the fall state championships and before winter sports were allowed to begin. Indoor non-contact sports—like bowling, boys swimming and diving, and girls gymnastics—were allowed to begin mid-January with practices and competitions. However, there was considerable unrest and anxiety until the big announcement by the MHSAA in early February that started up boys and girls basketball, competitive cheer, wrestling, and ice hockey.

Non-contact practices had begun on January 16, meaning that basketball teams could run drills in which participants were able to keep six feet apart, or wrestlers could lift weights, for instance. Then, the MHSAA allowed contact to begin for winter sports after the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) released an updated emergency order that went into effect on February 8—this was almost three months late, as most winter sports begin practicing in mid-November during a normal, non-pandemic year. 

It was off to the races, as contests were allowed to begin that week. Still, it is tough telling how much uncertainty impacted winter sports participation and performance.

“It was extremely difficult to keep the athletes’ spirits up,” admits Jaime Smith, Frankfort’s varsity girls and boys wrestling coach who also teaches in the high school building. “I was pretty straightforward from the beginning and did not feel confident that we would resume in early December, so I tried really hard to prepare my kids for the long haul—keep workouts appropriate for pre-season training, rather than in-season, trying hard to not burn them out. Each delay beyond January, I lost kids.”

Frankfort was not alone in the dilemma.

“While speaking with other coaches, that was a common theme across the state,” Smith says. “I couldn’t really blame the kids; the stress of the unknown was exhausting.”

Basketball numbers were not as impacted by the delay, according to Josh Crocker, Benzie Central varsity boys basketball coach and social studies teacher.

“The delay was tough, because we were in this sort of holding pattern,” he says. “We didn’t know when we’d be able to play—if we would be at all—and what the games would look like if/when they arrived. Luckily, we didn’t end up losing any kids’ interest due to the on-again, off-again start to the season.”

Logistical Nightmare
The delay created a logistics nightmare for school athletic departments that were taking on the challenges of transportation, scheduling of events, and scheduling of officials for those events. Some coaches questioned whether or not sports should be played at all.

“I really struggled at the beginning of the season,” says Tim Reznich, Frankfort’s varsity girls basketball coach who is also a science teacher. “As much as I wanted to be out on the court with the girls, I didn’t think it made any sense to take the risk of having anyone involved catching COVID.”

But the season did start, sort of.

“The starts and delays, especially during the winter season, was the worst I have ever experienced as an A.D.,” says Dave Jackson, athletic director for Frankfort Elberta Area Schools who is also a history teacher. “I literally did seven different schedules and revisions before we started play. We were holding Zoom meetings with the NWC [Northwest Conference] A.D.s nearly every other day to try to anticipate what we would be able to do. Our assignors for the officials were riding the roller coaster with us, and all of our work was very hard.”  

On top of his duties as athletic director, Jackson also coaches boys junior varsity basketball for Frankfort. He, like many other coaches, believes that the impact of the delay had a devastating effect on the student-athletes.  

“I watched athletes literally crying when the basketball and wrestling seasons were shut down,” Jackson says. “The emotional and social health of the students was definitely at risk during this time.”

New Protocols, Ever Changing
Depending on what sport a high school athlete was participating in, s/he could be subject to mask requirements and testing, while others were not. Much of it depended on whether or not the athlete was participating in what the MHSAA deemed to be a “contact” sport.

COVID testing and contact tracing, along with quarantines and mask-wearing, weighed heavily on the winter sports teams and continued into the spring sports of track, baseball, softball, girls tennis, boys golf, boys lacrosse, and girls soccer. 

“The anxiety of keeping kids healthy and capable of competing fell heavily on coaches,” Smith points out. “There was contact tracing that had to be performed after almost every [wrestling] meet we had competed at. Anxiety ran at an all-time high, and I dreaded answering the phone after competing, as impending doom always seemed to be at your backside. I once described the season as feeling like I was in a Final Destination movie—near miss after near miss, then having kids quarantined [for two weeks of a five-week season] is difficult to navigate.”

In mid-May, the MHSAA announced that face masks were no longer required for any outdoor activity, including the outdoor contact spring sports of soccer and lacrosse, whose players—until that point—had been wearing masks at all times on the field; meanwhile, track participants had only been required to wear masks until their event began, and baseball/softball players only had to wear masks in the dugout or during team huddles, but not while on the field. 

Moreover, fully vaccinated individuals are no longer required to participate in the MDHHS weekly testing program—which had initially begun in early April, upon most spring sports returning after Spring Break—as of the latest state guidelines. (Comparatively, no fall sports were required to test and only wrestling, of the winter sports, had required testing before every match.)

Why all of the changes? Much of it followed closely to the number of positive cases that Michigan as a whole was experiencing at that time—as cases rose in the late fall, sports were shut down; when cases began to rise again in early spring during Michigan’s “third wave,” after winter sports had been allowed to compete, spring sports were required to test; once more than 45 percent of Michigan’s population had at least one dose of vaccine, masks were no longer required for outdoor sports.

“I believe that our school administration and the MHSAA did what they could with the information that they had at the time,” Jackson says. “The mask mandate was tough, and playing and coaching in masks is not fun, but with what we knew and were told, we had to endure the plan.”
He elaborates:  

“I am happy the spring sports are being allowed to play in a more normal environment, and I hope that—going forward—things continue to improve. Every school in Michigan has students that are entrusted to us by their parents to keep safe, and when it comes to student safety, it is always better to err on the side of caution.”

The Long View
During the first week of June, most spring sports in our area are beginning to wind down for this most unconventional 2020-21 school year—Benzie’s girls soccer team is already done with their playoff run; track and field team State Finals have already taken place, and individual State Finals are scheduled for June 5; baseball and softball District playoffs begin at the end of the first week of June; boys golf Regionals took place June 2, with State Finals scheduled for June 11. 

After a few weeks off, student-athletes will most assuredly begin attending open gyms and pick-up games, as well as summer camps, for everything from basketball to soccer to running. The MHSAA continues to come out with guidance for high school and middle school sports, based on rules from the MDHHS, and that will certainly evolve as the summer goes on.

In terms of high school sports, the long-term impact of COVID-19 will take time to be known, coaches and administrators say: coaching changes, coping with fewer officials, testing, and quarantines are all possible going into the future. However, the student-athletes, they say, are really living through history, today. 

Matt Olson is a basketball referee in the region, but also a teacher and golf coach at Benzie Central. Since he teaches English and history, he has been thinking about how history books will read. 

“‘I think there is going to be a whole section of the history book written about 2020 with the pandemic, with the impeachment, and with the 2020 election—you guys are living through history right now,’” Olson says that he tells his students. “‘You guys don’t even have a clue how big this is going to be.’ There’s going to be a whole section: Chapter 40, Section 4, is going to be about 2020, just because of what a crazy year it was.”

Smith, who made MHSAA history as the first woman to coach a boys wrestling team to a district title in 2016, is concerned about the impact that COVID-19 will have on the future.

“I do believe that this year will have an immense impact on the exit of coaches and possibly administrators,” she says. “This will also be true for education as a whole.”

Perspectives on high school sports—in light of the pandemic—are changing.

“This year really demonstrated the importance of high school sports in the lives of our students, more than in any other year I can recall,” Smith says. “I think that they provide a much-needed escape for many of our kids, and we saw that this year more than ever before. The lengths to which they were willing to go in order to have a season really demonstrated the importance of these activities to their mental health.”

Benzie’s Crocker has similar thoughts.

“Writing letters to government leaders to ask them to allow us to compete, wearing a mask while playing, and even a few players attending rallies, as well as many other elements, really made this year unique in so many ways that I think they will have a lot of perspective and stories to share,” Crocker says. “I would anticipate that many of them will not remember the wins/losses or the scores, but they will recall the other elements instead.”

Jackson agrees. He gained a deeper appreciation this year for the student-athletes’ determination to fight and keep their passions and “love of the game” alive. Serving as an advisor for the senior class in 2020, he was devastated as they lost spring sports, prom, graduation parties, and almost the graduation ceremony, though it was ultimately rescheduled for outdoors with limited capacity.  

“I developed a new attitude of gratefulness for just being able to have games again,” he says. “Being thankful for each opportunity. It also created an urgency, because every practice and every game literally could be our last time together. It makes you cherish the moments.”

Looking back on the seasons played during the pandemic, coaches have mixed thoughts.

“As far as my year with the girls, after my initial trepidation, I had one of my most memorable years,” Reznich says of his 17th coaching season at Frankfort. “It was just plain fun being in the gym with this group of girls.”

Smith adds: “I didn’t totally comprehend the stress of the season until it was over.”

But all spring sport coaches will remember fondly a very special day in May.

“We will all remember the sunny day in May, when we all took off our masks and enjoyed a beautiful ball game after the CDC [Center for Disease Control], MDHHS, and MHSAA all dropped the outdoor mask requirement,” Graetz says.

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, a former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page, Midland Daily News, and the Second Half blog online, by the MHSAA. 

Full disclosure: Both co-owners of this newspaper are coaches of middle school- and high school-aged athletics, for school and for club.

Featured Photo Caption: Brooklyn Barker (#9 in white) of the Benzie Central girls varsity soccer team goes up against a Kingsley player. In mid-May, the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) announced that face masks were no longer required for any outdoor activity, including the outdoor contact sports of girls soccer and boys lacrosse, whose players—until that point—had been wearing masks at all times on the field. Photo courtesy of Jodi Baron.


Reffing During A Pandemic

Joe Johnson, who will soon enter his 20th year officiating high school sports, chose to referee with a mask, while understanding his colleagues’ decisions not to officiate at all during the pandemic. 

“A lot went into making the last year’s sporting events happen,” Johnson says. “There were so many new challenges, rules, and obstacles to get through for all involved—this included athletic directors, officials, student-athletes, scorers, clock operators, game managers, and more. It was a challenging year.”

Johnson, a football and basketball referee who resides in Beulah, singled out the officiating assignors’ role in working with the schools to get games covered with even fewer officials than the previous year. Over the past decade or so, finding referees has been difficult enough, even when not in a pandemic situation.

“The unsung heroes were the specific sport assignors, who had to assign multiple games multiple times due to delays and rescheduling of events,” he says. “And then, of course, all the juggling that they did when schools had positive tests or officials tested positive. What a great job by all!”

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