High school sports still waiting to play

Monday’s directive from the California Department of Public Health shutting down youth and high school sports until late January was a gut punch, a finger in the eye, an anvil dropped on a foot to high school administrators, coaches and athletes.

In a nutshell, the announcement hurt, leaving people to wonder if sports will be played at all in this academic year as COVID-19 numbers continue to climb in California.

The CDPH said prep sports would not begin until Jan. 25 at the earliest, although the return-to-compeititon date will be reassessed by Jan. 4.

“At this point, we’re evaluating everything and hoping for changes,” said Joe Heinz, commissioner of the CIF San Diego Section. “The CDPH could change before Jan. 4.

“The bottom line is people need to realize we’re all trying to do what’s best for kids, communities and schools.

“Also, people need to realize the CDPH is the decision-maker here, not the CIF. The decisions on when to start play is 100 percent out of our control.”

Heinz has held meetings with athletic directors, coaches, officials and San Diego’s conference presidents.

Ron Nocetti, the CIF state executive director, plans to talk with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office about possible changes to the CDPH guidelines.

Nocetti said while Monday’s announcement was bad news, it was good to get updated guidance.

“Now we have to advocate for our students,” he said.

Nocetti plans to champion for more sports in the second-least restrictive orange tier in hopes of opening the door.

After this weekend, 32 states will have concluded a football season, complete with state championships. The Texas state championships are set for Jan. 14-16.

“Unfortunately, the pause button is still in place in some areas of the country,” said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High school Sports Associations (NFHS).

“Government, education and health leaders in some states have deemed the risk too high to return to high school sports and activities. Certainly minimizing health risks to students, coaches, officials and others has to be the No. 1 consideration in conducting these activities and programs.

“In these situations, state associations are working with leaders on a safe return date, so very soon we believe high school sports and activities will be happening across all 50 states.”

According to the CDPH, the first high school sports to begin are deemed low-contact outdoor sports and can be played in all tiers, if there is no regional stay-at-home order in effect. (Most of the state is in the purple tier, the most restrictive.) Those sports are cross country, golf, tennis, swimming and track.

Swimming and track are spring sports in California, falling into Season 2 for this school year.

Heinz said the state doesn’t want to play sports out of season.

Sports that can be played in counties in the red tier — the second most restrictive — include baseball, field hockey, girls lacrosse and softball (all outdoor with moderate contact).

Counties in the orange tier — rural Sierra County is the only one right now — can play outdoor high-contact sports including football, boys lacrosse, soccer and water polo, and indoor low-contact sports like badminton, gymnastics and volleyball.

Indoor high-contact sports such as basketball and wrestling are only permitted in counties that qualify for the yellow tier. There are no counties currently in that tier.

“I’m wishing, hoping and praying for our season to start, but I’m not optimistic,” said Mike Haupt, basketball coach and assistant principal at St. Augustine High. “I don’t want to be a downer, but we’re getting different messages or no message.

“I want to be optimistic. No one wants to say ‘Cancel it.’”

With so many sports not starting until February or March, Haupt is concerned about schools that have two-sport athletes. He’s concerned with facilities.

And will there be enough officials — referees and umpires — for varsity, JV and freshman levels.

Currently there is a proposal to allow practice or play on Sunday, normally a state-mandated off day.

Arthur Gilbert, assignment secretary for the San Diego County Umpires Association, estimated 75-80 percent of officials are involved in more than one sport. So Sunday play would help get a full complement of officials to all games.

Joe Terribilini, wrestling coach at Rancho Bernardo High. is holding out hope his sport will start in March as scheduled and not be shut down entirely.

“People don’t realize wrestling is the most hygienic of all the sports,” Terribilini said. “All our kids carry hand sanitizer in their bags. We wipe down everything … hands, mats, chairs. You can’t compete if you have a fever.

“And we could compete outdoors if necessary. It’s not uncommon to set up wrestling mats on a football field.

“I never thought I’d see the day where schools and businesses would close. But everything changes, so I hold out hope we’ll be wrestling in March.”

There has been talk of high school teams playing under an AAU umbrella outside of school jurisdiction.

Football coaches are concerned with their season being pushed back to a March start with a finish in June. That would mean just weeks before summer 7-on-7 tournaments begin, putting athletes at risk.

“We have 23 seniors on our team and we want to play,” said La Jolla High receiver Diego Solis, who is headed to the Naval Academy next season. “We hope to play. We want to play.

“We must take COVID seriously, and we do here … mask, cleaning, distancing, supervision. Believe me, if we get too close at workouts the coaches are yelling.

“But we need to get it going as soon as it’s safe.”

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