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Officials hopeful on high school sports

“There’s always that potential if the cases explode through the roof in the first two weeks of schools’ reopening and the colleges coming back in session, that definitely could change predicted start dates and that sort of thing for competition.”
— Devin Wendel

ADDISON COUNTY — If all goes well — and local athletic directors acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic ensures there will be plenty of ifs — sports will return to Vermont high schools this fall, with plenty of guidelines and restrictions, of course.
And, in the words of Mount Abraham Athletic Director Devin Wendel, it will take teamwork and dedication from all involved if plans for fall sports are to succeed, beginning when students report to practices on Sept. 8. Interscholastic competition could start on Sept. 21. 
“People, athletes, coaches, officials, everybody needs to be really vigilant and open, honest and good to each other this fall if we’re all going to make it through,” Wendel said.
Certainly, the requirements will be many:
Masks for athletes, coaches and spectators.
No blocking and tackling in football.
No pregame huddles or postgame handshakes.
No spitting.
No more than 150 spectators at a game.
Daily temperature checks and screening questions for athletes, coaches and game officials.
Sanitation of locker rooms and exercise equipment, and plenty of hand sanitizer.
Social distancing enforced everywhere, from locker rooms to sidelines.
Despite all that, said Vergennes AD Peter Maneen, administrators and coaches will aim to recreate typical seasons and games for the athletes, even as new guidelines and rules crop up.
“We’re going to try to offer as normal a fall season as possible and monitor and adjust and alter things accordingly as needed,” Maneen said. “But we’re going to try to give kids the most normal experience we can.”
Wendel said education and then cooperation by all parties will be the key to making the season work, especially when, “All it takes is one kid on one team to potentially shut it down.”
Wendel likened athletes responding to COVID-19 symptoms to their dealing with concussion symptoms — they will have to tell the truth.
“It’s really training people to just say it, just be open. If you have symptoms, say it. Let us help you. So it’s going to be the same thing this fall. If you’re not feeling well, we’ve got to know,” he said.
“This not only affects you, but it could affect maybe not just your team, but maybe your entire school, and maybe someone else’s entire school … So our goal is to educate our kids, educate our parents, educate our community members.”
The most recent Vermont Principals’ Association (VPA) fall sports guidelines may be found online at tinyurl.com/y6xhswbz.
Those guidelines include three “Steps.” In Step 1 schools are closed for in-person learning, and sports are not permitted.
In Step 2, schools are open “with enhanced physical distancing measures,” and sports teams “may conduct conditioning activities that follow social distancing norms.”
In Step 3 schools are open on the same basis, but teams “may conduct normal training and interscholastic contests.”
Middlebury AD Sean Farrell said Addison County and the rest of the state’s high schools are all in Step 2, and can proceed to Step 3 with if all goes well. 
“Addison County can’t declare themselves in Step 3. The state will declare when we’re moving to the next step,” Farrell said. “The position of the state right now is that we will open up in Step 2, go through two weeks of training, intra-squad scrimmages, things of that nature, no interscholastic competition whatsoever, no scrimmages, for two weeks, and then opening up the third week in Stage 3.”
Or, as Wendel put it, Stage 3 depends on the success of Stage 2 and the general success of the schools’ reopening across the state.
“There’s always that potential if the cases explode through the roof in the first two weeks of schools’ reopening and the colleges coming back in session, that definitely could change predicted start dates and that sort of thing for competition,” he said.
EFFECTS ON PLAY
Assuming all goes well, the sports that might see the fewest changes are field hockey and soccer. Masks will be required, and rituals before and after matches will certainly be different. But other than that athletes will put on their masks and play.
For those teams, Farrell said there is widespread agreement they will just pick up their schedules as they were planned on Sept 21. Teams will play 10 or 11 games before postseason competition, with VPA quality points determining playoff standings.
“I know the VPA has met with each sport’s committee, and each sport’s committee at this point has said they’d like to pick up the season wherever we are when we’re able to play,” Farrell said.
At the JV level things could change, with an eye to avoiding more crowded buses. For example, Farrell said he, Maneen and Wendel recently met to discuss playing more local JV games rather than sending the JV teams off on the road with the varsity squads.
Outside of Addison County volleyball teams will be required to compete outside, bass fishing competitors will see little effect (yes, that is a VPA-approved sport), and Otter Valley golfers will have to compress their season into a window of just a few weeks.
Cross-country running might get a little complicated, although it is the only sport that received an exemption from the mask requirement. Starts will be staggered in larger meets, big events like Thetford’s annual Woods Trail Run have been canceled, and organizers must maintain lists of participants in order to perform contact tracing if someone is later determined to have run while infected with COVID-19.
Meanwhile, football will look different, according to Farrell, who is also the chairman of the Vermont Interscholastic Football League and the league’s head scheduler.
Despite grumbling in some quarters and a petition from one Champlain Valley Union player, the VPA cannot allow 11 vs. 11 tackle football, per guidance from the governor and the Vermont Department of Health and Agency of Education.
“There will be no full-contact, line-play, traditional football played in 2020,” Farrell said. 
Instead, athletes — including linemen vs. linemen — will play “seven-v-seven pass-skeleton type football,” with one-hand touch replacing tackling, Farrell said, adding that rules should be made final before next week.
He said the basics have been established: A center will hike the ball to a quarterback, who cannot run, but will have four seconds to throw the ball to one of the other five players, all of whom are eligible receivers. Failure to throw in four seconds means a loss of down. The seven defenders cannot rush the passer, and will cover the receivers.
Linemen will have the opportunity to challenge linemen under those same rules, Farrell said.
“The linemen will be playing against other linemen as receivers or as defensive backs and linebackers,” he said.
Because there will be no contact, games are likely to be scheduled twice weekly, on Tuesdays and then again on either Fridays or Saturdays, thus allowing teams to play a regular eight-game schedule, plus playoffs.
Maneen confirmed VUHS players would join the Eagle-Commodore cooperative football team, and re-emphasized the over-arching theme all the ADs sounded. 
“We’re all crossing our fingers,” Maneen said. “We’ll just plan and make any alterations as we go. But everyone’s on board to try to give the kids a sense of normalcy.”

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