By no means is anything close to being settled with high school sports in Wisconsin as the fall season rapidly approaches.
Even though the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Conference Board of Control approved by an 8-3 vote Thursday an amended plan to allow competition this fall despite the COVID-19 pandemic, many questions remain.
Perhaps the biggest from a Racine County standpoint is this: Will the Racine Unified School District allow fall sports, considering its announcement Friday that remote learning for students will be in place for at least the first quarter of the school year?
Since student-athletes will not be in conventional classrooms during that time, does that mean they also won’t be coming to school to participate in their fall sports?
Horlick Athletic Director Joe Wendt conceded Friday morning that a number of details must still be addressed.
“It doesn’t mean we will, it doesn’t mean we won’t,” Wendt said. “Obviously, with virtual learning being a new option for many districts, we just have to revisit and see how we can make it work for the safety of everybody.”
This much has been clarified after Thursday’s vote by the WIAA board: The start of practice for the low-risk sports (girls golf, girls tennis, boys and girls cross country and girls swimming) will be delayed from Aug. 10 until Aug. 17. Practices for the high-risk sports (football, boys and girls volleyball and boys soccer) will start Sept. 7.
In the case of football, that will be more than a month later than the planned starting date of Aug. 3.
The WIAA board also approved allowing schools the option of pushing back seasons into winter or spring, depending on circumstances. There’s also the option of not competing at all.
Wide gamut of emotions
Union Grove boys soccer coach Sean Jung, whose senior-dominated girls team saw its season canceled by the pandemic in the spring, said he can’t wait to get back on the field.
“Of course you’re concerned. People are dying,” he said. “But you can only live in fear for so long, I think. I’d just like to get back to some degree of normalcy, whatever the new normal is, and just go from there.
“I think if you do the right things, if you wash your hands and you wear a mask and you distance yourself, then you give yourself a very good chance to stay safe. I don’t know how healthy it is for all of us to be cooped up in our homes for the rest of our lives anyway. Let’s just get back to it and hopefully everyone’s safe, they find a vaccine and we move on.
“After what we went through in the spring, I am grateful for any opportunity to get out on the field — be it a month or a week.”
Greg Reischl, the longtime girls swim coach at Park, feels differently.
“It’s crazy,” Reischl said of the prospect of a high school sports season this fall. “A school is a petri dish for spreading things around — the flu, the common cold, things like that. Now with COVID-19, I think it’s absolutely nuts.
“I think over half the teachers in this country are aged 50 or over and it puts them at risk. People are thinking about kids and opening the economy and, hey, I get it. But you can’t go putting people at risk.”
What about football?
The biggest concern involves football, which is more physical than any other fall sport. Racine County has a rich history in that sport, and in 2018 St. Catherine’s and Racine Lutheran played in state championship games in their respective divisions at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison; St. Catherine’s took home its first-ever state championship in the sport that year.
But is it feasible to play football with the pandemic showing no signs of abating?
It’s full speed ahead for the National Football League, which plans daily testing of players for at least the first few weeks of training camp. The NFL is planning a full regular season, but will drop the preseason and will likely have limited attendance.
Such testing obviously isn’t feasible at the high school level. So what happens if a player tests positive at some point of the season? Will that involve shutting down the whole team? The Big Eight Conference, which features several traditionally-strong football teams in the Madison area, recently announced it will not participate in any fall sports this season.
“I think right now, there’s just more questions than answers,” Horlick football coach Brian Fletcher said. “To be honest, it seems like everybody just keeps passing the buck and nobody wants to make a decision. I want what’s best for the kids and I think that’s a complicated decision because you’ve got to weigh mental health and physical health and be able to gets back out and doing things as soon as possible.
“You also want it to be safe for the kids and, more importantly, their parents and their grandparents.”
Dan Miller, the coach who led St. Catherine’s to the WIAA Division 4 championship in 2018, was asked about the possibility of schedules being disrupted by conferences following the Big Eight’s lead and not playing football this season.
“Obviously, it’s very possible to be able to just make that decision as a conference,” he said. “I did see that if teams or conferences are not able to play, they could play in the spring. So there is some type of alternative plan.”
Horlick boys cross country coach Josh Slamka strongly favors a wait-and-see approach.
“Personally, I think things need to wait a little bit longer because I think, right now, if we were at a point where we were going to start a season and you end up with a kid testing positive or a kid’s family member testing positive, then what happens to the season? ... I just think it’s premature to be talking about starting things up. I think we should wait until things cool off.”
Other county coaches join Jung in looking forward to returning to a sense of normalcy. Teri Little, co-head coach on a Burlington girls volleyball team that won Division 1 championships in 2011, ‘12, ‘17 and ‘18, is among that group.
“Hearing that the WIAA is planning on moving forward with the season is exciting from an athlete’s standpoint,” Little said. “I think the kids are itching to get back on the court and, from a coaching standpoint, it’s just a matter of making sure that, as a district, what plans we decide and how we proceed in a way that allows students to have as normal of a season while still having safety and health as the top priority.”
Two Prairie coaches — Carrie Massey in girls golf and Nich Shafer in girls tennis — are also welcoming a return to competition.
“I guess with golf, it’s different because the kids have been playing all summer and they know more probably about how to handle themselves on a golf course with social distancing and all of that,” Massey said. “So I feel very comfortable with us doing that and moving forward. I think it’s good for as many athletes who can possibly play safety to get out there because it’s a huge part of their lives and I think the activity is going to be good for them.”
Said Schafer: “Tennis is a little different. You have the ability to stay socially distant throughout the sporting event — doubles and singles. As long as everyone is taking precautions, then I think it can be done safely.
“Safety is of the essence.”
Get in the game with our Prep Sports Newsletter
Sent weekly directly to your inbox!