By Tom Maguire | Associate editor

The plan for fall high school sports has become, in the phrase of one athletic director, a matter of “modifications and tweaks.”

The plan as of this week is for some Catholic schools to play some sports this fall even though the football, volleyball, and competitive-cheer seasons have been moved to March 1, 2021, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Those three activities will be postponed to address the membership’s concerns regarding high-risk fall sports, according to the Sept. 9 announcement by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA). Low- and moderate-risk fall sports are still authorized to begin practices on Sept. 21.

The NYSPHSAA, composed of public, parochial, and private schools,  governs the regulations for high school sports in 11 sections (which contain their own leagues) based on geographical areas. Its updated document of Sept. 11 states: “State Officials (New York State Department of Health, New York State Education Department) are the only entities that have the authority to modify, amend, or revise the guidance provided to schools. NYSPHSAA is required to follow state-issued guidance.”

New York State Section IV’s Southern Tier Athletic Conference, of which Seton Catholic Central High School in Binghamton is a member, announced on Sept. 13 that it “has agreed to postpone all league play and follow the NYSPHSAA condensed fall, winter, and spring seasons beginning January 4th, 2021. …

“Student health and safety were major concerns leading to the decision along with the late start and potential for a canceled season if schools must close this fall. With a January 4th start, the hope is all athletic seasons can begin, and end as scheduled and still include section and state-level competition. While a difficult decision, resumption of all student activities, including athletics, is our hope with … reopening schools our immediate focus.”

Seton sports postponed

Dr. Elizabeth Carter, President of Catholic Schools of Broome County, said in an email: “We will have conditioning, workouts and training for student-athletes starting Sept. 21 and then start the sports seasons on Jan. 4. There will be three shortened seasons in the spring that will include all sports.”

She added: “We are disappointed that our student-athletes will not have a fall season but we understand the decision. We will make the most of the opportunities for conditioning and training and look forward to the spring seasons.”

“We are committed to provide our students opportunities to train, condition, work out, and prepare both physically and mentally so we are ready when interscholastic athletic competition begins in January of 2021,” Seton Director of Athletics Chris Sinicki wrote in an email.

Section III includes Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School in East Syracuse, Bishop Ludden Jr./Sr. High School in Syracuse, Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, and Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School in Utica.

On Sept. 11, Section III Athletics announced the decision of its Executive Committee:

“Fall sports will proceed as anticipated based on guidance from NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York State Department of Health … and NYSPHSAA officials. Practices may begin for low- and moderate-risk fall sports on September 21, 2020, and higher-risk fall sports may begin March 1, 2021. … The committee’s decision is a result of reviewing feedback provided by member schools.

“‘We’ve received feedback this week from the majority of our 104 member schools. More specifically, 97 schools responded with 58% indicating they are ready to begin fall sports, and 42% requesting a delay of fall sports until after January 1, 2021,’  said John Rathbun, Section III Executive Director. ‘We understand the challenges many schools face and the difficult decisions superintendents, principals, and athletic administrators are being required to make to keep student-athletes, spectators, and sport officials safe. We continue to stay committed to providing support to our member schools and the student-athletes we serve.’

“The plan … emphasizes no fall sectional-tournament competition.”

“The Notre Dame community is proud to be a part of the NYSPHSAA and Section III,” Marty Nemecek, Director of Athletics, said in an email. “Our coaches and student-athletes are prepared to follow the directives from the governing bodies. We will be ready to participate at the varsity level in girls soccer, tennis, and boys and girls cross country.

“At the modified level we will be engaging in boys and girls cross country and girls soccer with all programs beginning on September 21st. Notre Dame is committed to giving our students the best opportunity to experience a quality and well-rounded Catholic education even during this most difficult time.”

“As a member of the NYSPHSAA and Section III Bishop Ludden will support and adhere to any guidance and adjustments made by them,” wrote Gaelic Knights Director of Athletics Gallagher Driscoll. “We are disappointed that [some] sports will not be able to participate this fall. It is our hope that we can have some kind of season for these student-athletes in March.

“We will continue to encourage all of our athletes to compete as students, be the best possible citizens and teammates they can be. To be honest with you I am not in any of their shoes! I do not know how they feel! But if someone or something was taken away from me that I loved, I was passionate about, or cared deeply about I would certainly struggle. These are formative years for our students; some might never have a chance to compete on a team again.”

‘Ways to make it work’

Christian Brothers Academy’s Buddy Wleklinski was among the approximately 28 Onondaga High School League athletic directors who attended a several-hours meeting Sept. 14 at the Section III office.

He thinks all school officials understand how important sports programs are to the students, “especially since a lot of them have been unable to be involved in sports for a long time. So we’re all trying to find ways to make it work. …

“I think all of us are trying to be nimble and navigate this the best that we can, understanding that we have to be flexible. … At the very least I think we’ve come up with some great guidelines, great policies as far as schools are concerned — how to handle game management, how to handle the screening for the kids.”

The fall sports that CBA plans to offer are boys golf, girls tennis, boys and girls soccer, boys and girls cross country, and girls swimming (pending finding a pool that allows outside groups to come in). CBA is fortunate to have a lighted field, so earlier nightfall will not affect its start times. But “just because you can play 16 games doesn’t necessarily mean that that makes sense in trying to squeeze them in,” AD Wleklinski said.

Bishop Grimes Director of Athletics Bob McKenney was also at the OHSL meeting. He said Grimes plans to offer varsity boys and girls soccer, boys and girls cross country, and girls tennis this fall. Possibilities for modified sports include cross country and soccer, a sport that might have six to eight games for girls and boys.

All plans are contingent on enough schools offering those sports. Grimes football, volleyball, and competitive cheerleading are moved to March 1, and they will compete in March and April.

“There are quite a few schools committed to trying to get the fall up and running,” he said, “so that’s exciting for the kids, I’m happy for ’em.”

He added: “I think that we need to try to provide some normalcy if we can. Obviously, it’s not going to be totally normal because of all the precautions we have to take now, but the [situation] is taking a toll, I’m afraid, on kids … emotionally.”

A season that is run safely is “great for everybody,” he said.

‘Unprecedented times’

According to the NYSPHSAA: “‘We’ve spent two days speaking with nearly 500 athletic directors across the state and it’s clear that administering high-risk fall sports during the COVID-19 pandemic presents a significant challenge for our member schools,’ said Dr. Robert Zayas, NYSPHSAA Executive Director. ‘These are unprecedented times and unfortunately, difficult decisions will have to be made to address this ongoing crisis. We continue to stay committed to providing support to our member schools and quality participation experiences for the students we serve.’

“The revised season for football, volleyball, and fall competitive cheer will be known as ‘Fall Sports Season II’ and may officially begin practices on March 1, 2021.

“As a result of fall high-risk sports being moved, the start date for the spring sports season has been adjusted to April 19, 2021. The first official practice for spring sports will now be April 19, 2021 (the original start date was March 15).

“‘The NYSPHSAA officers have determined it would be unrealistic to host football, volleyball, and competitive-cheer seasons this fall,’ said Julie Bergman, NYSPHSAA President. ‘This continues to be the most challenging situation educators have ever addressed. I, along with my fellow officers, believe the participation experiences for football, volleyball, and competitive-cheer athletes will be more beneficial in the spring than in the fall.’

“Low- and moderate-risk fall sports practices are still scheduled to begin on September 21st for those schools and sections who have determined it feasible to host interscholastic athletics at this time. Regular-season games can begin for low- and moderate-risk fall sports (girls tennis, cross country, girls swimming/diving, boys soccer, girls soccer, field hockey) once student-athletes have participated in the required number of practices as per NYSPHSAA bylaws.”

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