As fall high school sports wind down across New England, interest is building for what may or may not come this winter.
Sanctioning organizations are coordinating their efforts with various state agencies to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This office had very rarely spoken with the Governor’s Office and with the Department of Health prior to the pandemic. Now it seems like we’re talking to them every week,” said Tom Marcello, assistant executive director of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.
“The more we have these conversations with them, the easier they become and we can get down to the important work much quicker.”
The traditional start of practices for winter sports — typically around Thanksgiving — is drawing near and uncertainty remains with spiking coronavirus rates in Maine and other states.
The Maine Principals’ Association this week delayed its scheduled start of preseason activities, but has not announced a new date.
Some New England states have established a calendar for their first practices and games, but many don’t know what sports they will offer.
“We’re waiting for our next Board of Control meeting once we have the latest recommendations from the Department of Public Health,” Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference spokesman John Holt said.
“But the public wants to know yesterday. They want to know things are going to happen.”
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 24 states plan to proceed with basketball this winter without any changes to their 2020-21 schedules. Seventeen states expect either to delay the season or condense schedules and 10 have yet to determine or release their plans.
Maine and New Hampshire are listed as modifying basketball schedules by delaying the start of preseason practices, while the other New England states are listed as not having yet made a determination.
“We’re seeing a lot of creative thinking about how to delay the start, how to implement a season that has COVID contagion in mind,” NFHS executive director Dr. Karissa Niehoff said.
The NFHS released similar statistics for wrestling, with 14 states set to proceed without change, 27 considering modified seasons and nine states yet to determine schedules and guidelines.
In the Northeast, Maine and New Hampshire were listed among the “modifying” states while the others have not made determinations.
The New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association Council on Oct. 16 unanimously approved offering all of its winter sports for 2020-21.
The schedule will begin with optional “skills and drills” workouts beginning Nov. 30 in accordance with New Hampshire’s amateur and youth sports guidelines and phases I and II of the NHIAA’s reopening guidance.
Formal preseason practices may begin Dec. 14, and first games could be played no earlier than Jan. 11, 2021. Playoff schedules have not been determined.
“In some cases it pushes the start of games off by a month and the start of practices by three weeks,” NHIAA executive director Jeff Collins said.
Schedules will focus on regional play, with a waiver granted to eliminate the requirement of playing a minimum number of divisional games to qualify for postseason. Any school would be eligible to participate in an open state tournament in its respective division.
“We wanted to encourage play as much as we possibly could, and the regionalized schedules have become a very important aspect of this,” Collins said. “We saw the tournaments, truthfully, as another opportunity for kids to compete.”
Vermont’s path likely will be known Friday when the governor’s office and Agency of Education are scheduled to release winter sports guidelines.
“We do know we’re not going to start practices until the first of December, and if we do allow games, it’s not going to be until the middle of January,” said Bob Johnson, associate executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association.
The practice schedule would not be far behind the typical start of preseason workouts, but the start of the regular season would be about a month later than usual.
“We’ll probably be the first or second state to come out with guidance for the winter,” Johnson said. “Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire have a tendency to be a little quicker on things. We’re definitely ahead of the game in northern New England.”
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association has scheduled its winter season from Nov. 30 to Feb. 21, but MIAA director of communications Tara Benett said no decision has been reached on which winter sports, if any, will be permitted.
Rhode Island, like Maine, has not yet announced a schedule or what sports may be offered this winter.
“We’re probably 50 or 60 percent into the process,” Marcello said. “We’re going to try and keep things as normal as possible and as expected as possible with our sports offerings and with our calendar, but of course individual schools or the state Department of Health might have some restrictions that don’t allow us to do that and we’ll obviously abide by those restrictions.”
Connecticut has established a framework for its winter season, with Nov. 21 for first practices and Dec. 7 as the first date for competition.
“So much of it, as I think maybe the case in Maine is, is related to the guidance our Department of Public Health ultimately will offer us,” Holt said.
Its Board of Control is expected to review that guidance, along with the latest COVID-19 metrics, on Nov. 10 or Nov. 17, and make some decisions.
Plans include reducing Connecticut’s 20-game regular-season schedule for boys and girls basketball to 16 with a maximum of two games per week. Play will be regionalized.
“The hope is that unlike this fall when we’re not holding state championships, there will be a state championship tournament and it will all be wrapped by Feb. 21,” Holt said.
How much of all this planning comes to fruition in Maine and beyond ultimately is subject to the impact of the coronavirus.
“I wish I had a crystal ball and could say these are the start dates,” Collins said. “Could they change? Sure, depending on what goes on and how the pandemic progresses and any number of other things.
“Hopefully we’ll get through this, we’ll get through this spike and we’ll get through the holiday season and maybe there’s light at the end of the tunnel as we move forward. But who knows?”