When the final state championships in Michigan, North Carolina and Texas concluded last month, the books were finally closed on a tumultuous “traditional” fall sports season that no one will soon forget. Differences in COVID-19 infection rates, decision-making hierarchies and virus mitigation philosophies created a mosaic of school sports provisions and start dates never before seen across the national landscape.
Despite numerous game cancellations and instituted “pauses,” the most anticipated fall high school sports season in history became a reality – at least in part – for schools within 43 of the 51 NFHS member associations. Motivated by the sweeping cancellations last spring, state association employees poured months of diligence into collaborating with state and medical officials, configuring calendars and implementing protocols all for a mere chance to return to play.
“We knew after what we saw in the spring that the absolute last resort was not playing,” said Julian Tackett, commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA). “We saw what it did to students. We saw what it did to enrollment. And, as such, we adopted the mantra all along that ‘we’re not going to let the spring happen again.’”
All that work would have been for naught, however, had it not been for the parallel commitment to responsibility embodied by administrators, coaches, student-athletes, parents and fans.
“We had coaches with cleaning solutions who were staying up till the late-night hours cleaning shoulder pads, helmets, practice uniforms every day for those kids,” said Steve Savarese, Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) executive director. “Teams were traveling in more buses than usual, so you had superintendents increasing budgets for that as well. And I’m very grateful to our fans who wore masks, sat 6 feet apart and understood when we had crowd limitations. I can sum it up this way – it was our state’s and our schools’ finest moments.”
Alabama was one in a small collection of states that were able to start all of their fall programs on time. With the blessing of Gov. Kay Ivey and the state health and education departments, Savarese opted to start as early as possible, believing that a season played later in the fall or in the spring was no guarantee.
“They encouraged us to start on time because none of us knew the future,” Savarese said. “And we knew that we may only be able to go for two weeks, but we wanted our kids to have something.”
While there was certainly risk involved, Savarese’s decision proved favorable. Football, volleyball and girls cheer all saw a substantial increase in participation. Only six schools that declared intent to compete in volleyball were unable to field a team, and only one was forced to exit the postseason prematurely due to virus complications.
A closer look at the AHSAA’s football numbers yields truly remarkable results. Not including the 13 declaring schools that did not play a single game, just 159 of 2,087 scheduled contests – 7.6 percent – became COVID-related forfeits. Of the 116 schools that had to forfeit at least one game, 35 rebounded to qualify for the state playoffs, and one of them – Mars Hill Bible School – won a state championship. Just as with volleyball, only one team out of 208 in the playoff field was eliminated because of quarantine protocols.
Tackett, whose “respectful but insistent” approach with state leaders secured the reopening of high school sports in Kentucky, delayed the start of all KHSAA programs by three weeks, a tactic used by the majority of states that returned to action this fall.
“August was a bit tough on our schools,” Tackett said. “There was a lot of data flying around and (delaying) gave them a couple of weeks to figure things out once the actual learning started.”
And once the athletics started, the KHSAA was off and running toward its own undeniable success. Combining five offerings in its fall lineup – field hockey, football, boys and girls soccer and volleyball – 597 of 6,215 total competitions were called off, a ratio of just 9.61 percent. Football and volleyball accounted for almost 450 of those cancellations, and astonishingly, only one field hockey match was lost for the year. Tackett explained that while many additional contests were moved from their original dates and rescheduled with relative ease, and were therefore not factored into the COVID count, the overall numbers could have been even lower without the structural challenges of football season.
“After 14 days in quarantine, schools would simply reschedule games because they had plenty of opportunities if it wasn’t football,” he said. “If a soccer team’s quarantine ended Monday or Tuesday, they could play Friday or Saturday – no problem. Football is once a week, so when you decided not to play, you didn’t play.”
Kentucky did have a unique wrinkle to its season, however, when a one-week pause was instituted prior to postseason play. Seeing no significant downside, Tackett felt a brief intermission was necessary to evaluate rising case numbers around the state, but also to benefit administrators.
“We had a lot of ‘COVID enforcement fatigue,’” Tackett said. “It was becoming more and more obvious that the mask debate was getting strenuous, constantly going up to people and asking them to spread out – athletic directors were growing weary. And we were deliberate about the timing of it, too. We intentionally announced it just as we figured out our playoff brackets, so teams had more time to communicate. They could spend that entire off week getting word out to their fans about the plans for the game, attendance rules, etc., and it let everybody get a little bit of a mental reset.”
Other than a few venue changes made to accommodate social distancing, the postseason went off without any major hitches in Kentucky, which joined Alabama as two of the 28 states that were able to name state champions in football, volleyball and cross country. Due to the low-risk nature, more states held championships for cross country than for any other sport this fall, with events being sponsored by 35 associations. Thirty-one states crowned champions in volleyball; 29 awarded titles for football; and championships for boys and girls soccer – less common fall programs even in a normal year – were offered in 18 states and 14 states, respectively. Some states including New Jersey and Wisconsin orchestrated “culminating events” for certain sports that stopped at the sectional or regional level, while surging COVID threats forced others such as Alaska and West Virginia to end tournaments unexpectedly.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), which saw participation from roughly 90 percent of its membership after opening fall practices August 24, condensed its postseason formats for all sports to mitigate the risks involved with statewide competition. For all team sports, only the champions of the PIAA’s 12 geographic districts were eligible for inter-district play.
“We tried to regionalize competition to not have people have to travel too far, so they could stay in their own regional area with the exception of the finals,” said Dr. Robert Lombardi, PIAA executive director. “We also went to home sites so that it wasn’t as difficult to obtain sites for the games. For our championships we use neutral sites, and we changed that in preliminary rounds because no schools were willing to have two other schools come to their campuses, and some of our other venues belonging to colleges and universities were not available.”
The number of state qualifiers for individual sports such as golf and cross country was also significantly reduced. And rather than conducting one race per gender for each class at the cross country championships, runners were grouped into pods of approximately 40 and had their times integrated against the clock to determine the final results.
While the PIAA did not compile official COVID statistics for the fall, Lombardi said an outside source calculated 94 percent of the state’s scheduled high school football games were played (3,226 of 3,424).
“We were very, very fortunate,” Lombardi said. “That’s not to say schools didn’t have hiccups along the way – some of them did – but almost all of them were able to overcome that.”
As the two associations that bookended the season with state championships held on January 23, the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) and the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) featured fall storylines that stood out in unique ways.
A roller coaster is perhaps the most fitting analogy for describing the MHSAA’s journey. Executive director Mark Uyl and his staff spent most of June and July producing guidelines for a return to play, and teams were even allowed to start practicing for four days before a state executive order stymied football and boys soccer and prohibited indoor activities for volleyball and swimming and diving.
“That was an incredibly challenging time because our low-risk sports – tennis, golf and cross country – were able to move forward, but at the same time, we had four of our fall sports that were really stuck on pause,” Uyl said.
Those offerings hung in limbo for the next three weeks until another executive order gave them new life with a start date of September 8. To make up for the lost time, the MHSAA adopted a six-game regular season for football and removed all playoff qualification requirements to allow teams as many games as possible.
Seasons progressed largely unhindered until November 15, when, with just three weeks left in the football season, one week left for volleyball and only the state meet remaining for swimming and diving, a third executive order once again suspended those sports due to worsening COVID conditions.
This time, high school sports sat idle for more than five weeks until a plan was hatched to resume using a Rapid Test Pilot Program, a regimen that required all team personnel – from coaches and players to student managers – to be tested for the virus three times a week.
“Most of our state’s rapid COVID test resources had been going to nursing homes through most of the fall,” Uyl said. “With the vaccination process started, there was a growing abundance of these leftover rapid tests and (government officials) were looking for a small group of students to do a pilot program with hopes that more widespread testing could be used in schools later this year.”
And finally, roughly 5½ months after the first practices began, the fall sports season reached the finish line in Michigan.
“It was one of the biggest sighs of relief of my entire life,” said Uyl. “That was the first big one, and the second one will be with the completion of winter sports.”
For most of the season, North Carolina was the only state in NFHS Section 3 that did not play fall sports. That changed when the NCHSAA began its cross country and volleyball campaigns on November 4 and recorded the latest fall sports start dates of any state during the 2020 calendar year.
As was the case in several other areas of the country, a governor’s mandate was partly responsible for the lengthy pause but was not the only factor. A survey issued in the summer by the NCHSAA revealed the state’s superintendents were not comfortable moving forward with fall sports, prompting the association to continue to delay even after the governor moved the state to a phase that supported participation.
“Once we knew that, we knew we weren’t going to start on September 1,” said Que Tucker, commissioner of the NCHSAA. “We then went with the idea that we wouldn’t be starting anything until January, and we were drawing on some of the ideas from our colleagues in other states who already had similar templates. Then, our executive committee asked us to explore starting something earlier than January, so we looked at a November start date and kicked it into gear to get a calendar together.”
As one might expect given the activities taking place in surrounding states, Tucker and her staff did receive plenty of feedback from parents and other residents about the association’s decision not to play sooner.
“My phone was blowing up with people saying, ‘this is not right – we’re losing kids to Georgia, losing kids to Tennessee,’” Tucker said. “We just had to try to find a way to explain the narrative in such a way that it didn’t blast the state leaders or blast what state association colleagues were doing in our section.”
However, even with the late start and quarantine protocols forcing a few teams to shorten their seasons, Tucker is confident her North Carolina schools and students reaped great value in getting the chance to play. “Honestly, if we did a survey and asked those schools that started fall sports to speak to us about the experience, I think they would all say they had their frustrations and their hurdles to overcome, but that they were happy they had the opportunity to participate.”
Along with Washington, D.C., associations in California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Virginia and Washington were unable to sanction any programs in the fall. While Nevada and Virginia have started some sports, the other six associations are still waiting to launch compact schedules in the winter and spring.
With a governor’s order having already postponed football and soccer to the spring of 2021, executive director Sally Marquez and her New Mexico Activities Association (NMAA) staff were busy adjusting their activities calendar three different times in hopes they would be ready when cross country, golf and volleyball were allowed to get going.
At one point, it appeared October 1 was that anticipated date, as teams were permitted to begin practicing in small pods. Unfortunately, however, the pod sessions would only last about a week before an announcement came down from the state government that those sports had also been moved to the spring.
“I hurt for the kids,” said Marquez. “It’s gut-wrenching to see kids on the sidelines when we all know through education-based activities what they learn as far as lifelong skills. That part has been so difficult to see and I want to do everything I can to get them back to playing.”
Making matters worse is the growing uncertainty revolving around the spring season, which could be in jeopardy in certain parts of the country if COVID percentages cannot be controlled.
“I think the kids, the coaches and the athletic directors just want to know if they are going to get to play or not,” Marquez said. “And if they’re not going to get to play, they would like to be told so they can deal with the loss and move on to set new goals for their lives. That’s been the hard part of the whole thing is the unknown.”
For now, Marquez remains optimistic her student-athletes will get their opportunity and looks forward to that day, as well as the emotions that will surely accompany it.
“The day that we play our first game or even the day that we assign an official to a ballgame, I don’t even have words as to how I’m going to feel. You think about the things in your life that are most important – the birth of your children, weddings, and those other types of things that happen in your personal life – but I would say returning to play will bring me more joy in my professional life than I’ve ever had in my 37 years of being an educator.”
The extraordinary events of this past fall sports season have been inspiring, exhilarating, anguishing and exhausting. And while the process seemingly spanned six years as compared to six months, the reality is we’re only one-third of the way home.
“There is no rest,” said Savarese. “To use an athletics analogy, we’re satisfied because we feel like we won this ‘game,’ but we know we have more ‘games’ right around the corner. That’s our thought process.”
Nate Perry is coordinator of media relations at the National Federation of State High School Associations.