Different look for fall HS sports season

Abington’s students have returned to the classrooms, but the high school athletic fields remain empty after school. 

Fearful that athletes engaged in close competition could help spread COVID-19, state and local athletic directors have drastically reshaped this year’s high school athletic schedule. Football, volleyball, and competitive cheerleading have been postponed until early 2021, part of a newly created fourth scholastic sports season. Meanwhile, sports such as soccer, golf, and cross-country will start up later this month, although with some modifications. 

Abington Athletic Director Peter Serino said while the restructured fall sports schedule is disappointing, it’s the best they can do while keeping student athletes safe.  

“For kids who get to play fall sports it’s going to be drastically different,” he said. “Senior night, where everyone comes and watches you play is probably not going to happen. For a lot of kids, this is their last opportunity to play competitively. It’s rough.”

COVID-19’s toll includes the boy’s basketball team’s state championship game, the entire spring sports schedule, and now the annual Thanksgiving Day football game with Whitman-Hanson.

The alternative, according to public health officials, is a possible strong resurgence of the deadly virus which has claimed 195,000 lives in the United States since February, including 9,200 in Massachusetts. 

The state department of public health, in coordination with the state education department, has determined football and competitive cheerleading to be among those activities classified as “higher risk sports”, due to the amount of close contact inherently involved. Other sports such as golf, soccer, cross country, and volleyball – where athletes can spread apart a bit more — are considered “moderate risk” and able to play this fall with modifications. 

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, the state’s largest governing body of high school athletics, however, voted to push football and competitive cheerleading off until the new season, which will be played between Feb. 22 and April 25. The MIAA also gave individual leagues permission to decide whether a sport should be pushed to next year. 

The South Shore League, of which Abington is a member, voted recently to postpone girls volleyball until next year due to the amount of changes and modifications needed to be put in place. 

Last week, the Abington School Committee voted to offer soccer, cross-country, and golf for fall athletics. The deadline for athletes interested in playing this fall to sign up is Friday, Sept. 18. Tryouts and practices start Sept. 25 with games beginning the first week of October.   

The MIAA has cancelled the annual state tournament for each sport, but is allowing leagues to have a season-ending competition. Teams this year will also play a more local schedule to avoid traveling to different parts of the state. 

Ed Reilly, the offensive coordinator for the defending Super Bowl champion football team, said it had been frustrating over the spring and summer months not knowing whether they would have a season.

“At least at this point we know we have the possibility of a season out there, and in that sense, we’re excited about that,” he said. “Having my own son playing, there’s a disappointment factor for sure, but at least it’s not cancelled.” 

Cheerleading Coach Kristin Gerhart said she felt “fortunate” they were leaving the door open for a season early next year. 

“I am confident that the cheerleaders will be prepared and enthusiastic for the new season,” she said. 

The new schedule means athletes will have the opportunity to play four sports this academic year, instead of three. 

Girls Varsity Soccer Coach Kate Casey is getting ready for a season featuring several major rule changes. Throw-ins will be replaced with kick-ins. Heading is now prohibited. Corner kicks must be played outside the penalty box. Players need to stay at least six feet apart during restarts, and defenders will have to keep their hands off their opponents. Players are also required to wear masks while playing, however, they will be allowed to quickly pull them down for a break if not involved in the play and away from other players.

Casey said the new rules will take some getting used to but that it will still remain soccer. 

“I take comfort knowing all the coaches are in the same boat. We’re all going to have to reinvent how we coach,” she said. “I think there will be a learning curve for everybody. The way we play defense is going to be different. The way we attack from the corners of the field will be very different.”

Casey said she’s been in regular contact with her players, and although there’s some concern about the changes, they’re getting ready to play.

“Even with some of the interesting rules, I think that social connection, that little bit of return to normal I think they need that,” she said. 

Reilly said football coaches are looking for opportunities to start engaging with their players,  holding small-sided workouts, and generally checking in on them. 

“Whatever issues they’re having [during practice] is when we find out, if something is going on at home, if kids need rides, if something’s is happening with their schoolwork,” he said. “Just to be in their lives a little bit.”

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