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Fall prep sports on deck, but questions remain

Daily Inter Lake | July 25, 2020 8:00 PM

Local athletic directors are planning for fall sports to proceed as planned, though the landscape of COVID-19 is ever changing.

A calendar on the Montana High School Association website lists the first day of practice for fall high school sports as Aug. 13 for golf (classes AA and A) and Aug. 14 for football, cross-country, soccer and volleyball.

“We’re planning on it,” Bigfork High School athletic director Matt Porrovecchio said. “But on the other hand we’re going to wait to see what happens. It’s hard to say with any certainty.”

Golfers are required to have two practices before competition and the first golf meet could be as soon as Aug. 15. Competition for all other fall sports can start Aug. 27, provided all required practices are held.

Students in Flathead county are currently on track to return to school in August but that could always change if there is a significant spike of COVID-19 that causes another round of business and school closings.

ADs are still awaiting advanced directives from the MHSA but are moving forward with schedules for the fall.

“As a school, we’re going to do what we have to do to get kids in the school and kids participating,” Porrovecchio said. “But I think people are hungry for that.”

Porrovecchio said this summer has been one of Bigfork’s best as far as student participation in open gyms and practices.

Glacier High School has had a similar turnout as well, according to AD Mark Dennehy. The school put together its own plan to get students started with conditioning for fall sports.

A common thread for these open practices is that students must wear face masks except for those performing strenuous exercise.

“We’re ingrained in those habits,” Dennehy said.

The MHSA has posted a document on its website with guidance for schools to follow as summer sports and activities move forward during Montana’s Phase II reopening. Included in this document are guidelines for hygiene practices, weight rooms and athletic equipment.

Social distancing is mandatory in weight rooms and students must not share towels or equipment. Each student must bring their own water bottle and cannot share food or water. Frequent hand washing is encouraged as well as wearing a face mask whenever possible. All athletic equipment should be cleaned after individual use. Even fist bumps, high fives and hugs are not allowed.

Each sport is ranked either as a lower infection risk activity, moderate infection risk, or high infection risk activity.

Cross country is considered low risk since it can be done with physical distancing or individually without sharing equipment. Staggered starts are recommended for this sport.

Volleyball and soccer are grouped as a moderate infection risk since they involve “close, sustained contact” but use protective equipment that may reduce respiratory particle transmission.

It is recommended that each volleyball player has their own ball for individual ball handling drills and these balls should be cleaned during practice. Soccer has the same set of rules but also specified that each player must use their feet only -- no heading or use of hands.

Football is considered a high risk activity because of the close and sustained contact between participants and minimal use of protective barriers.

It is recommended that players practice in pods of five to ten players and do not share tackling dummies, donuts or sleds. The ball should also be cleaned during practice.

Whether fans will be permitted to attend events or if they are, what that might look like, or whether non-conference competition will be scheduled is still to be determined. Travel between locations is another concern.

“We want to have something — if that means we can still play here we’re gonna do that,” Porrovecchio said. “We’ll do what the MHSA tells us to do because we are responsible for the health and safety of our kids.”

The MHSA is projected to give word regarding specific directives regarding fan attendance, schedules and travel sometime in the next few days. Local closings could affect things, as well.

“[We are} preparing to have full participation in sports activities this fall in accordance with the state MHSA guidance,” Polson AD Don Toth said. “We will, however, have to be flexible to possible local closings as each county in Montana has its jurisdiction to shut down county activity. The MHSA will not cancel all sports because one county closes. There are multiple scenarios the MHSA is prepared to follow based upon possible partial closure and or interruption of full seasons.”

The status of each county regarding COVID-19 infection rates will have an effect, too.

“Some communities are ahead of where other communities are,” Dennehy said. “It depends on your community a little bit. That amplifies concern and how you’re going to approach things, but the health and safety of our kids is paramount.”