On Friday, Jan. 22, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) announced that all sports may begin their seasons in phase 4 of Illinois’ COVID-19 protocol. This means high-risk sports such as football and basketball can begin games against other schools also currently in phase 4.
Phase 4 not only allows for restaurants to be open with limited capacity and COVID-19 guidelines like social distancing, schools can resume with high-risk sports that are permitted a 50-person gathering limit.
The schedule released by IHSA for all sports includes five to six week seasons of practices and games. For sports like basketball, however, games cannot be played until seven practices have been held. There will also be no state series for basketball, nor football, but there will be other various game opportunities.
This is a game-changer for high school sports because some teams have had their season postponed since the fall. These sports include Boys Soccer, Girls Volleyball, wrestling, basketball, and football. With phase 4 guidelines, these sports can return and athletes can participate in games.
Basketball has already begun, and the season ends March 13, leaving basketball with a six week season. Football begins March 3, with games starting March 19 and ending April 24. Games may be against schools including Plainfield North, West Aurora, Minooka, and others. Although the season is shorter, athletes and coaches are just glad to have a season at all.
“All of our coaching staff and I’m assuming our kids… are pretty excited but since the world has drastically changed, I guess cautiously optimistic is what everyone seems to be,” Varsity Football Head Coach Brian Cooney said.
While high school sports are returning to OHS, many aspects will be vastly different. COVID-19 guidelines such as temperature checks, face masks, questions regarding COVID-19 exposure and symptoms, and the implementation of as much social distancing as possible has helped to ensure a safe return to sports.
“The process of coming into the game will look quite a bit different because of the symptom checks,” Athletic Director Darren Howard said.
In addition to these guidelines, spectator limits are different.
“Initially, it’s probably just going to be the parents of the players, the number 50 fills very quickly…we’re doing a lot of the upfront work to make sure that what we do is going to be safe for our kids, our coaches, and for the people attending the events,” Howard said.
Along with spectator guidelines, halftimes are also different. A usual halftime for basketball would consist of all the players standing close to each other while the coach speaks, but this does not allow for enough social distancing, so a new plan has been put in place.
“At halftime, the teams will exit out behind, through the wall towards [the athletic] office,” Howard said. “Then they will go opposite directions down the hallway, because [that] side of the school will be closed off. Fans will only be allowed on the far side . We won’t be using locker rooms.”
On the matter of refereeing games, this will also be different than in past years because of COVID-19.
“Referees will wear masks, except for when they are actually officiating the game, then they’re allowed to remove those because they have to use their whistles,” Howard said.
The stands used to be packed when playing certain home games, but that can not happen this year because it is currently unsafe to have large group gatherings. This may affect the atmosphere surrounding sports like basketball and football.
“Sometimes in our gym for a basketball game when we’re playing [Oswego] East, we have 2,300 people in that gym,” Howard said. “For home basketball games right now, you might have one hundred with everybody included.”
This also means that events at football games like dance, cheer, and band may look different, as well as change the look of high school football games.
“When it’s all said and done, they’ll be playing football to play the game on the field and be a part of the team,” Cooney said.
College and professional sports games have paved a way for high school sports to safely return, as well. Things like more frequent water breaks and the attendance of fans at a basketball game, specifically, will look different but similar to a new normal for sports.
“In basketball for example, as we’ve seen on TV, the college games and the pro games— Our games will look somewhat like that,” Howard said. “We’ll also have stickers on certain seats in the bleachers for the very limited amount of fans we’re going to have.”
Changes in sports due to COVID-19 are not just limited to games, though. Coaches have put efforts toward ensuring athletes stay healthy by adjusting practice plans to allow social distancing and still keep sports fun and beneficial.
“The biggest obstacle for any high school coach is to keep kids together who want to be together and want to communicate because of the camaraderie that comes with sports, clubs, and activities,” Cooney said. “Now we’re telling them ‘you can do it, but you gotta keep that 6 feet distance’… if we want to play, I think it’s a price everyone is willing to pay.”
Overall, the consensus is that the adjustments that are being made to ensure the safety of all are worth the expense of having sports look different.
“At this point, it’s a little bit of blessing just to get to play, and if they get the opportunity to come out and play, I think it would be great for the community,” Varsity Girls Basketball Head Coach John Carlson said.