High school sports in NY: Top questions we're asking about the 2021 seasons

Think we're all set for the return of high school sports on Jan. 4, 2021? These are the 10 questions that still need answers.

Andrew Legare Kevin Stevens
Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin

High school athletes across Section 4 have grown accustomed to looking ahead as their adaptability is tested while trying to remain hopeful they will return to their sports of choice.

Sidelined since March because of the coronavirus pandemic, up next on the calendar is the start of winter sports on Jan. 4. It's the fall athletes missing out at the moment, with their sports shifted to a March 1 start date by Section 4 and its member conferences.

As they watch the calendar and work out, here are 10 questions worth pondering:

Will high-risk sports be allowed?

Matthew Craigh of Binghamton controls the ball against Elmira in boys soccer Sept. 25, 2019 at Ernie Davis Academy.

Football, volleyball and cheer in all parts of the state were moved into the March 1 window by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association after the New York State Department of Health designated them as high risk.

Workouts are allowed, with some restrictions, but the Department of Health will need to clear those sports for competition before they can go forward.

Whether that happens will likely come down to the number of COVID-19 cases in New York. The bad news is cases have gone up since those sports were deemed high risk. The good news is a few months remain before any decisions have to be made.

Will the same problems exist?

Action from the Elmira football team's 63-35 win over Binghamton on Oct. 5, 2019 at Ernie Davis Academy.

In making the decision to postpone fall sports, administrators cited either COVID-related concerns, deep budget cuts, or a combination of the two. Travel considerations, particularly with limits on how many people can ride a bus for a sport such as football, have also been brought up.

Some coaches have said they're optimistic sports will return next year, others are less hopeful.

"I don’t even know if we’ll get off the ground in the spring," longtime Elmira girls soccer coach Zach Sarno said. "I just have the feeling if the flu season hits bad and these kids go totally virtual at home, then who knows?"

Coaches in Section 4 have watched with interest as several other parts of New York, along with neighboring states, have gone ahead with high school sports this fall. In Pennsylvania's Northern Tier, there have been multiple instances where athletics and in-school instruction have been shut down for two weeks because of positive tests within the district. A two-week shutdown in an already condensed sports season would be a big blow in Section 4.

Will athletes turn elsewhere?

Action from Elmira at Horseheads volleyball Sept. 9, 2019 at Horseheads Middle School.

Some coaches have seen their athletes spend their falls working part-time jobs. For seniors, especially, the chance to continue to earn money might be more appealing than a return to competition.

With the condensed winter, fall and spring seasons perhaps overlapping depending on scheduling, some athletes could be left picking one sport over another. Spring sports are scheduled for an April 19 opening. The NYSPHSAA has loosened practice requirements, which will benefit athletes going from one season to the next.

There will be no regional or state championships for fall sports, but they remain on the table for winter and spring teams. Fall sports could be at a disadvantage when it comes to multisport athletes, who might be more inclined to go with the sport that holds out hope for state playoff competition.

One possible benefit for Southern Tier Athletic Conference golf over other fall sports is the spring teams still have the possibility of state competition.

Will club and prep seasons clash?

Club volleyball tournaments are typically in full swing from January until May. Club soccer and AAU basketball get going in the early spring.

Coaches and administrators have talked of their willingness to work with club teams if conflicts arise, and in fact many coaches lead both high school and club programs. The bottom line is coaches are willing to do what's best for the athletes, but in some cases logistics and time demands could make athletes pick one over the other.

Often it's through AAU teams athletes get noticed by college coaches and some might be inclined to transition from winter high school basketball into the club season rather than playing their normal fall sport. Youth and travel teams in New York have had more freedom to compete than high school programs, which also could factor into athletes' decisions. 

Candor senior volleyball player Brayden Watkins is optimistic there won't be any issues for her team, last year's Class D state champs.

"I think the club season, if it does happen at the same time as the regular season, our coaches are a majority of the same people," she said.

How to handle coaching conflicts?

Shifting fall sports into a different time of year will present potential conflicts for coaches. High school coaches in sports such as soccer and volleyball often spend springs leading club teams.

Boys golf presents a unique challenge in Section 4, where the Southern Tier Athletic Conference plays in the fall and everyone else competes in the spring. Because it's not feasible to play in March, STAC schools are moving that sport into the spring window with other golf leagues.

Ed Browning is head coach for the Horseheads boys and girls golf teams, which now are scheduled to compete at the same time of year. Coaching two teams at once is asking a lot, though it's not out of the question. One possibility is for STAC teams to hold boys and girls meets together.

"When I get to that, certainly I'm going to have to have some in-depth discussion with the athletic director as to how at least in my case I can work that out. I think I can," Browning said.

Will golf courses be available?

Action from Corning at Horseheads boys golf Oct. 8, 2019 at Willowcreek Golf Club in Big Flats.

Another question related to golf is whether course time will be hard to get. Browning said his understanding is part of the rationale for STAC schools playing in the fall was to avoid overcrowding area courses with high school meets in the spring.

In addition to the additional crush of teams seeking course time, spring is also a time of year where recreational golfers are getting out to play and leagues get underway.

Willowcreek Golf Club offers course time for no charge to Horseheads.

"I'm always very thankful that they watch out for us and provide so much in the way of facilities for us," Browning said. "But, boy, that can't be an expectation across the state. It just can't be. It is a business. People are trying to make a livelihood."

Will there be enough officials?

Officials line up during Elmira Notre Dame at Trumansburg eight-man football Sept. 20, 2019 at Trumansburg.

There is already a widespread shortage of game officials. How might COVID-19 concerns coupled with condensed seasons exacerbate that situation?

“I think it’s easy to make a decision for yourself, as opposed to making a decision that’s going to involve other loved ones. That’s what I tell (officials),” said Kevin McGoff, Endicott resident and longtime assigner of basketball and soccer officials.

It's also possible postponed college seasons will be played in the spring, further reducing the referee pool at both levels for anyone who officiates high school and college games.

Masks or no masks?

Pittsford Sutherland players who aren’t playing stay masked while they watch the game Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020.

NYSPHSAA guidelines require face coverings for sports where athletes are unable to maintain at least 6 feet of physical distance. However, the guidelines also allow players who are "unable to tolerate a face covering" to go without.

Some athletes in parts of New York competing this fall have chosen to go without masks while competing in sports such as soccer.

"I don't know how feasible it is," Sarno said of wearing masks, adding he has some players with asthma. "I know they did talk amongst themselves and one or two of the girls did say, 'Coach, that's going to be pretty tricky.'"

And consider officials, for whom a whistle under a mask would be somewhere between extremely challenging and out of the question. Hand-held devices have been explored as a possible solution.

How will weather impact sports?

Action from the STAC West divisional cross country meet Sept. 17, 2019 at the Murray Athletic Center in Pine Valley.

March in New York state is not only known for cold weather, it also can bring significant snowstorms.

Schools with artificial turf have an advantage in clearing snow, but a lot of schools in Section 4 play on grass fields. A snowstorm could keep them out of use for a week and that doesn't even factor in fields' availability for practices.

"It’s definitely going to create some hurdles to figure out schedules and logistics," Sarno said.

Cross country could face bigger issues because snowy or muddy conditions are a potential safety hazard. Clearing a 3-mile course of snow isn't feasible, so a major March snowstorm could impact runners for weeks.

Horseheads is one of the few STAC schools with a grass football stadium, though the school is building a new turf facility to be used at some point. Blue Raiders head coach Kevin Hillman said his team will play in 6 feet of snow if necessary.

"As long as we can play, I don't care," he added.

The STAC has voted to move girls tennis into the traditional spring season along with boys tennis to avoid March weather.

Will athletes be ready to go?

Whether it's club teams, camps or off-season workouts, there is a transitional rhythm from summer to the fall season. That won't exist in March, though those competing in winter sports will at least have that under their belts.

Football will be particularly tough, given some players will have gone nearly a year and a half without playing.

Planned fall workouts have been suspended in many schools because of rising COVID rates in some pockets of the section. It's just one example of the day to day approach school districts have had to take.

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