Never have so many high school athletes and coaches been so eager and enthusiastic to participate in preseason activities, be they tryouts or practices.
But it was all smiles and social distancing as scholastic sports resumed across the state Friday for the first time since mid-March when the basketball and hockey state finals were canceled over mounting concerns about the coronavirus. That was a precursor to a shuttered spring season.
Many folks played roles in getting to this point, which, it must be acknowledged, remains precarious because of the unpredictability of COVID-19.
They include officials at the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association and two state agencies, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
And then there are the area athletic directors who were tasked with taking policy and turning it into action so cross-country, field hockey, golf, and soccer — the four sports that will be contested in Central Mass. this fall — could have a season.
“I think all in all, all of our Central Mass. ADs are proud of the accomplishments of what we put together,” said Shrewsbury High athletic director Jay Costa, who spearheaded the process with Nipmuc Regional counterpart Chris Schmidt as the chairs of Districts 3 and 2, respectively.
“And I think the most important piece of it was the support of our principals and superintendents behind the whole pod idea.”
When the games begin in October, there will be a different look to them due to safety guidelines mandated by the state and modified by the MIAA. Same goes for the opponents, as leagues are out, and pods are in for a season that is scheduled to conclude Nov. 20.
Instead, teams have been grouped by geography into the aforementioned pods (see chart). This was done to limit travel — and, presumably, potential problems — and make it easier to initiate contact tracing should someone who participated in or was present for a practice or a game turn out to have tested positive.
“Knowing that transportation for schools might be an issue this fall,” Schmidt said, “and knowing that the further you would have to travel, an increase in potential issues could arise, especially if you’re dealing with different COVID numbers (in communities).
“So we got together and created these pods that, ‘OK, geographically how can we keep these schools as close as possible to home.’ And, yeah, that meant potentially you weren’t going to play a league team this year.”
In the case of Nipmuc, for example, it won’t play fellow Dual Valley Conference members Douglas and Sutton, but will play schools from the Colonial Athletic League (Valley Tech, which is conveniently across the street) and the Southern Worcester County League (Grafton, Northbridge).
There was also cross-pollination in terms of the newly formed Districts 2 and 3 that were born out of District E. They represent six leagues spanning Central Mass., along with independents Notre Dame Academy, St. Bernard’s, St. John’s and St. Paul.
District 2 absorbed Advanced Math and Science Academy and St. Bernard’s, while North Brookfield and Shepherd Hill shifted to District 3. Costa believes the geographic pod concept was instrumental in getting the Shepherd Hill school committee to approve fall sports as it was previously believed to be on the fence.
It was all about collaboration and cooperation.
“Being a hard year where we split into two districts, it was good to see that we were all able to work together for kids and still keep our Central Mass. ties strong,” Costa said. “And we feel like our pod idea kind of got contagious across the state where Eastern Mass. schools are using that concept.
“It was a lot of work; I can’t even name the amount of people that put the hours in it, it was just great. Great seeing us all to come together. And tiring because things changed, protocols would change.”
Indeed, it was a time-consuming, six-week process for athletic directors, who typically see their workload ease up in the summer if they’re in a full-time position or are off if they’re in a stipend position.
There were a seemingly unending string of phone calls and Zoom sessions along with the occasional face-to-face meeting — socially distanced, of course.
“I guess to some extent it’s a labor of love, right?” Schmidt said. “We knew as athletic directors that this is the work we needed to do if we wanted to have sports. So all of us that were involved, yeah, we spent a lot of time together.”
Some issues were unsolvable, though, in terms of satisfying everyone, which is often the case anyway.
Chief among them, some pods are balanced in terms of having historically strong athletic programs and others, well, not so much. But the focus this fall is on participation and not competition.
Teams will play shortened schedules and postseason tournaments have been canceled, although pods in some sports may end up having their own little playoff to cap the season.
“There are some competitive imbalances, but in the long run it was just to get kids back playing and doing what we can do to do that,” Costa said. “And if that was a compromise we had to make everyone was on board with it.”
The protocol packet put together is 15 pages long and covers such matters as how attendance will be taken and practices run, roster size for travel squads, and transportation to away competitions. Locker rooms will be shuttered and outdoor bathrooms utilized.
As for fans, each player for the home team will receive two tickets per event. Fans of the road team are advised not to make the trip as they’ll be turned away at the gate.
Over the past few weeks, leagues received approval from their principals to go forward. It was welcome confirmation for the work the ADs put in.
“I think principals appreciated all the time athletic directors took and the care and the thought that went into this,” Schmidt said. “They appreciated the fact we didn’t just say, ‘Let’s do leagues just for the sake of leagues.’
“That we really sat down and thought about, ‘What is the best way to do this? What is the safest way to do this? The way to get kids on the field and considering the social well-being and the sheer wellness of it all.’ ”
—Contact Rich Garven at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @RichGarvenTG.
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