NORTH ATTLEBORO — The first day of practice for winter sport student-athletes has been moved back to Dec. 14 as the MIAA took into consideration recommendations from its Task Force, the CDC and the Mass. State Board of Health with the rising number of COVID-19 cases in every district across the state.
“it was no surprise, it was something that we saw coming,” North Attleboro High Athletic Director Kurt Kummer said of Friday’s decision to postpone the projected Nov. 30 start for winter athletic programs statewide.
“I think that the state wants to see what happens with Thanksgiving,” Kummer said of health and safety measures to restrict the spread of the corona virus. “We weren’t expecting to start on the 30 th, we knew that was gone,” Kummer added of Hockomock League athletic directors convening and agreeing by consensus in view of individual district COVID-19 case numbers to postpone the start of winter practice to Dec. 7.
“With the rise (in COVID-19 cases) that we see around us, the eyeball test, the numbers are spiking everywhere,” Jeff Franatino, the MIAA President said, in conjunction with MIAA Task Force Chairman Thom Holdgate of the 20-1 vote in favor of extending the start date. “There are districts that have closed their doors before the (holiday) break because of those numbers. We are trying to be as safe as we can and moving it back, it’s something that we considered to adhere to the safest standards for our student-athletes and coaches.
“This has forced school districts across the nation to re-evaluate how they deliver education,” Franatino said. “We make these recommendations with the best interests in the safety of our student-athletes. At the end of the day, it may look a little different than what we’ve seen in the past. We full understand the impact of these (athletic) activities upon the social well-being of our students. Our athletes and administrators have worked hard to make it work this fall, the hope is that we can do so again through the winter season.”
The winter track season was moved to the “Fall-2” or gap season by a 17-3 vote basically due to the unavailability of the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston and college facilities used by high schools. The MIAA left open the possibility for individual conferences such as the Tri-Valley League (Norton) and South Coast Conference (Dighton-Rehoboth, Seekonk) to engage in competition with the availability of sites. Norton High and the Tri-Valley League will be meeting with officials from Wheaton College about the possibility of using its fieldhouse for either weekday or weekend meets, which has occurred in the past. Similarly, D-R, Seekonk and its member South Coast Conference schools have annually held winter track competition on both weekdays and weekends at the Greater New Bedford Voke fieldhouse.
The wrestling season, already banished from the winter season due to its “high risk” nature of individual contact, was moved to the spring by a 19-3 vote because competition might be conducted outdoors or in gyms or fieldhouses with doors left open for ventilation.
MIAA Assistant Director Phil Napolitano, noted that in a polling of some 40 schools which sponsor a wrestling team, some 40 percent of the student-athletes also participate in football, which had been moved to the “Fall-2” or gap season.
“To move it to the Fall-2 season is not realistic,” said Napolitano in consideration of distancing and ventilation concerns.
“For the high risk and sustained contact sports, the difference is that football is played outside and wrestling indoors,” Napolitano added. “The move to Fall-2 would not provide a realistic path (for competition),” he said of the number of potential available athletes for both wrestling and football. “Based on that, the Wrestling Committee believed that (while) moving it to the spring (April 26 start) and moving it outdoors, it still has several more hurdles.”
According to Norton High Athletic Director Aaron Sumner, the Tri-Valley League had already convened for winter sports recommendations and voted to start practice sessions on Dec. 7.
“We expected it to be moved to the 14th, so the decision didn’t surprise us,” Sumner said.
Sumner indicated that the TVL has used the fieldhouses at Holliston High and at Hopkinton High in years past for winter track meets, but those facilities were removed from consideration due to social distancing concerns.
“We’ll meet next week to decide if we (TVL) want to use Wheaton or move to the Fall-2 season,” Sumner said. “From my perspective, at Norton, it’s better to do it (winter track) in the winter if we have access at Wheaton.”
Holdgate noted that it has taken a combined effort from all schools to put together a winter schedule.
“We’re trying not to have conflicts with those schools (D-R, Seekonk, Tri-County) that didn’t play any fall sports,” Holdgate said of the task force recommendation, citing those cross country seasons being moved to the Fall-2 season when winter track would also have competition.
Sumner does not foresee any issues for gymnastics or hockey, in terms of facilities and sport specific guidelines. “It’s all do-able. We can figure it all out, just like everything else.”
The major game modifications for basketball include halftime being eliminated; only four players can line upon on the free throw lanes to limit congestion and contact; and on sideline or under the basket inbounds plays, the offense will be inbound the ball from the foul line. Masks will be mandatory for all players.
With halftime being eliminated, the length of time between quarters will be extended to 2:30 and timeouts will be extended by 15 seconds to 1:15.
In addition, players will be asked to refrain from picking up a fallen teammate or opponent by hand as well as from huddling on the court in game situations or on free throws; and will be asked to refrain from pre-game or postgame acts of sportsmanship while extending hands.
The physical dimensions of swimming pools and hockey rinks were of concern to Task Force members in order to conduct winter seasons. Roster sizes for hockey teams will be reduced from 22 to 20 to allow for social distancing on the benches and for between period team meetings. The MIAA suggested that individual schools work with their contracted hockey rinks, such as the New England Sports Village and the Foxboro Sports Center for local schools, to determine safe protocol There was even speculation for two 22:30 minute periods be played instead of three 20-minute periods.
“Every rink is going to be different, it will be a challenge,” MIAA officials said in regard to distancing student-athletes outside of the designated bench areas and with no locker rooms available for showers or changing of clothes.
Hockomock League athletic directors found favorable the conditions and fall sports competitions and thus believed that other than wrestling, the winter sports season could proceed — with care.
“We were trying to push for the (Dec.) 7 th to give us some flexibility, to see where the COVID was at,” Kummer said of Hockomock League member schools starting a week later than the Nov. 30 start date. “Swimming, gym, hockey and basketball – a month ago, I didn’t think that was possible,” Kummer said. “In the wedge season, we have your football season and volleyball, the issue is going to be indoor track – not having a place to do it,” Kummer said of a lack of a facility to compete, the league using the Reggie Lewis Center for its previous winter track seasons. “They’re not going to let 2,400 kids from the Hockomock League come in and do an event.
“We’ll get everybody up and going (for winter sports), then the next phase will be what that means for fans because that is all going to change – which is too bad for the community. But, if the kids can play, it gives them something to look forward to, give them some sort of normalcy.
“You have to keep people safe first.”