COVID-19 has caused the fall sports season for student-athletes to shift to a late-December start, with some fall sports and winter sports moved to the spring.

August traditionally is the start for fall sports. The California Interscholastic Federation’s new schedule for fall sports, announced Monday, addresses only the playoffs for football and girls and boys volleyball, water polo, and cross-country, which will all be in March 2021. The Sac-Joaquin Section provided further guidance, setting Dec. 14 as the first day of practice and Dec. 28 as the first day for games.

The shift means that basketball, soccer and wrestling — winter sports originally scheduled to begin in November — will begin in late February and early March, with playoffs to follow at the end of May and in early June of 2021.

Spring sports, such as baseball, softball, swimming, and track and field, will have close to a traditional schedule, with practices and games starting in late March, about a month later than usual, and playoffs scheduled for late May and early June. Girls tennis and golf, ordinarily fall sports, will be spring sports, coinciding with boys tennis and golf.

Will DeBoard, assistant commissioner for the Sac-Joaquin Section, said that teams would still be able to get in the usual number of games and tournaments, but their postseason schedules would differ.

The football playoffs, for example, will be one week shorter than usual. Last year, the SJS had 12-team brackets for six of its seven divisions. DeBoard said that the section will most likely set up the playoffs with eight-team brackets and up to 10 divisions, shortening the postseason by a week.

The CIF noted that between now and December, guidelines for summer and off-season practices and workouts will be governed by state health and educational agencies, with county health departments and school districts providing detailed guidance.

Until Dec. 14, teams will operate under the Sac-Joaquin Section’s “limited period,” meaning teams can practice up to 1½ hours each day, four hours on Saturdays, with a limit of eight hours a week. Schools can also choose the “out of season” format, where athletes can train with gyms or clubs but are not allowed to use school equipment. Conditioning and weight training are allowed year-round, as long as the workouts are approved by the school districts.

Local coaches and athletic directors said they’re relieved to know that student-athletes still have a season to look forward to. But once practices and games resume, they will face an unprecedented challenge of managing schedules and use of athletic venues as nine months’ worth of sports are compressed into less than six months.

That means more teams competing in a limited number of local athletic venues. Tracy High Athletic Director Matt Shrout expects athletic directors and coaches from all three Tracy Unified School District high schools, also including West and Kimball, will have to collaborate when they create their schedules.

“The one thing we don’t want is me doing one thing and Kimball doing something else and West doing something else, because it just leads to problems,” he said. “We’re going to come up with a plan together and we’ll go forward.”

Golf and tennis will be particularly challenging as the boys and girls seasons are squeezed into one season.

“That’s what we have to work out, and if we have to sit there and go sport by sport and get a plan together, then we’ll do that,” Shrout said. “We’re going to have to work well together.”

Millennium High Athletic Director Stevi Balsamo said that her school, which has only baseball, softball and soccer fields on the Tracy Learning Center campus, would face an added challenge of renting venues, such as baskeball and volleyball courts, from local schools that might already have scheduling conflicts with their own teams.

Having two seasons instead of three also means that multiple-sport athletes will have to choose one sport over another, or figure out a way to play two sports in one season while balancing academic responsibilities.

“Small schools will be facing great challenges when it comes to fielding teams with the combination of basketball/soccer/baseball/softball all condensed into one, in addition to the individual sports,” Balsamo said, adding that because of the charter high school’s smaller student body, Millennium’s teams rely on athletes who play multiple sports.

Shrout said he expects to see that at larger schools as well.

“It will be interesting to see how that goes off,” Shrout said, adding that if the coaches approved, an athlete could play multiple sports in one season. “You could have a kid playing a baseball game at 3:30 and a basketball game at 7:30.”

Kimball High cross-country coach Ben Trombley said the overlap between sports in the condensed schedule could put more stress on athletes who usually get a break between seasons.

“My main concern as a cross-country/track coach is now the seasons will go back to back with no rest period in between,” he said. “Overuse injuries come April/May are going to be the biggest concerns.”

The Sac-Joaquin Section also suspended a rule that prohibits players from competing on a club team for their sport during their high school season. Shrout noted as an example that many girls volleyball athletes and coaches have a year-round schedule between their club and high school teams.

“You could have girls that are practicing and playing games during the week for the high school, and then practicing and playing games on the weekend for their clubs,” he said. “It could get crazy, so we’ll see how it works.”

Mountain House High water polo coach Alison Ordner said there’s still plenty of uncertainty in an environment where teams can’t control their own circumstances and have little guidance on when or if they’ll be able to return to practice.

“I feel so badly for the kids. They just want to go to school, hang out with friends and play sports,” she said. “As for us adults, we started out saying it won’t last long. Just wear your mask, stay away from people and make sure to stay in shape at home. And by the way, here is a website for at-home workouts and resistance band training.”

Kimball High football coach Mike Kuhnlenz is optimistic that the Jaguar football team will be ready to play in January even though players aren’t meeting for practice right now. He is awaiting word from Tracy Unified School District regarding when his team can resume in-person workouts.

“I’m hopeful we’ll get positive news as I know that teams we have on the schedule that are in other districts are allowing their teams to practice and to use footballs,” he said. “As of right now, we are sending our players workouts to do at home. I’m very happy with how our players have responded. This is a hardworking, determined group of young men who are not allowing these circumstances to deter them from their goals.”

DeBoard noted that once players and coaches begin to gather again, COVID-19 safety measures will be up to schools and school districts, and once games begin, it will be up to local jurisdictions to decide how they want to accommodate fans.

“If we are saying it is OK for kids to play a sport like tackle football and not have to distance, my anticipation is there won’t be any fan restrictions,” DeBoard said.

He added that the CIF does feel pressure to bring back high school sports, acknowledging that sports contribute to the educational experience and the culture at a high school.

“We are going to do everything humanly possible to have sports this year,” he said. “It isn’t just playing a sport. You’re representing your school. There’s lessons learned on fields of play that are sometimes tough to learn in the classroom, and I think that’s part of your education. I think sports are absolutely an important part of everybody’s education.”

Contact Bob Brownne at brownne@tracypress.com, or call 209-830-4227.

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