Fall Sports Update: Protocols help schools stay in the game

DAVE PURPURA
dpurpura@thisweeknews.com
Worthington Kilbourne girls volleyball players Grace Cummings (left), Lily Podolan, Lauren Bair, Emily Cline and Natalie Helmbright wear masks during introductions before a match at New Albany on Aug. 22. Fall sports are underway in Ohio, with strict protocols in place for teams and spectators because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

In a normal year, having the first game of a season double as senior night might be considered unusual.

But in a year in which the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has at least temporarily redefined "normal," celebrating his 12 seniors before kickoff Aug. 22 against Teays Valley seemed appropriate to Groveport Madison girls soccer coach Mark Coyer.

"We threw this together just to make sure they don't lose this," Coyer said, crediting the idea to assistant coach Tommy Snyder. "We need to be happy we are playing. We keep on reminding the parents and our girls that we could be shut down at any time and we have to do our part to make sure we're following guidelines and getting to finish the year.

"We might only be able to bring so many people to our games, but I know (canceled spring sports such as) baseball, softball and track and field would have loved to have had anybody and any games at all."

The Cruisers and every other sports team across the state are hoping protocols are followed to the point that they -- and the winter and spring sports to follow -- can enjoy a full season.

High school sports began throughout August with safeguards in place beyond masks and social distancing. While the non-contact sports of boys and girls cross country, boys and girls golf, girls tennis and girls volleyball began on their scheduled dates, contact sports -- field hockey, football and boys and girls soccer -- were not given the go-ahead until Aug. 18, three days before the start of the field hockey and soccer seasons and nine days before the first football games.

Less than 24 hours later, the 12-page state order officially sanctioning those sports was released, but with stringent guidelines concerning attendance and safety in addition to wellness checks that previously were in place.

Outdoor events can play host to 1,500 fans or 15 percent of seated capacity, whichever number is lower. No more than 300 fans may attend indoor events. Schools are placing stickers or tape on bleachers to mark where spectators can't sit.

Attendance is limited to family members or others close to athletes, and in many cases ticketing is being done online with codes assigned to specific competitors or schools.

Football teams are limited to 60 players and players must stay distanced between the 10-yard lines while on the sideline. Field hockey and soccer teams have a maximum of 22 players, and volleyball teams have 15 for a given match.

The mandates sent coaches, athletics directors, players and families scrambling to comply and make difficult decisions.

"Once you answer a question, then three more develop from that one question," said Olentangy Berlin athletics director John Betz, who calculated that his school's stadium can accommodate 782 fans for football, 560 of whom can sit on the home side, and that the gymnasium can hold 266 fans. "I have said that it won't be 'Football Friday Night,' but it will be more like 'Football Saturday Morning' (for junior varsity games)."

Further squeezing capacity at football games is the attempt to accommodate relatives of band members and cheerleaders.

"They are considered participants of the game and when you are considering their parents alone, you are pushing capacity," Betz said. "When you start figuring in siblings and grandparents, it's tough."

Each site is mandated to have a compliance officer to ensure athletes, coaches and fans are abiding by the guidelines. That often ends up being the athletics director or another member of the athletics department.

"Occasionally, maybe two or three times in the course of (an) evening, I had to ask two or three people to put their mask on," Westerville Central athletics director Andy Ey said. "They had it around their neck and they had put it down, but I had to ask them to put their mask on and they did."

Handshakes before and after games have been eliminated. Coin tosses feature a limited number of players, perhaps as few as one per team in addition to an official, and bench areas are sanitized before and after events.

Many cross country invitationals have been scaled down, forcing teams to change schedules or even organize dual or tri-meets.

Volleyball events are limited to two teams, eliminating invitationals that normally are commonplace.

"I lost 12 matches so from the time that order came out until midnight, I was on the phone, emailing, 'I know you were in this tournament, I know you're looking for matches, do you want to play, I don't care if it's home or away,' " Hartley girls volleyball coach and athletics director Mike Rahe said. "I had (a scrimmage at Hartley on Aug. 22) and all of our bleachers had dots on them. We fence off the bench area for the players so no one can be within 10 feet of them. Obviously volleyball is the beta for basketball. If something bad happens in volleyball, there's no way we're playing basketball because that's a contact sport."

Several dozen fans, many of them students, watched some of the Pickerington Central-Pickerington North soccer doubleheader Aug. 21 from outside the fence of North's stadium.

That matchup often features food trucks and generally has the feel of a community event. Neither was the case this year.

"It's been a process. It's ever-evolving. You're just trying to figure it out one step at a time," North athletics director Molly Feesler said. "We all need to help each other."

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave

Rasheed Motasem (left), Landon Hiddle and Kevin Gonzalez of the Hilliard Bradley boys soccer team wear masks and maintain proper social distancing on the sideline during a game against visiting Hilliard Darby on Aug. 21.