The fate of fall sports in Wisconsin was the sole only item on the agenda of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Board of Control’s special meeting, held Thursday, July 23.
After nearly three hours of reviewing all of the possibilities at hand, in an 8-3 decision the Board approved conducting the fall sports season with a delayed start.
The sports of girls golf, girls tennis, girls swimming and diving, and boys and girls cross country — or low-risk sports — will be permitted to begin practice with prescribed acclimatization protocol Monday, Aug. 17. The earliest practice date for the sports of football, boys soccer, and boys and girls volleyball — considered high-risk sports — is Monday, Sept. 7.
That decision wasn’t supported by two local school districts, Deerfield and Cambridge. Deerfield is located within Dane County, which at this time is still in Phase 2 of the reopening plan during the COVID-19 pandemic and doesn’t permit events of over 25 people and with social distancing at one time. And while the Cambridge High School campus is within the borders of Jefferson County, Blue Jays athletics play a wide number of schools in Dane County.
“We don’t know for sure what we’re doing in Deerfield yet, but with the reality of some of the restrictions in Dane County, for example, we can’t play a football game right now,” said Deerfield Athletic Director Matt Polzin. “Selfishly for kids in Dane County, it wasn’t the best day … I kind of feared (that outcome) was going to happen.”
District 6 representative and Cambridge District Administrator Bernie Nikolay was one of the three no-votes on the 11-member WIAA Board of Control.
“I represent a lot of Dane County schools and although (the southwest plan) had a lot of pitfalls, I felt it was fairest for everyone involved and would allow a uniform schedule,” he said. “It also gave Dane County students and athletes hope at least that they’d have three seasons, where right now it’s not a very good situation for them.”
On July 21, the Big Eight Conference, which has all but three of its member schools (Beloit Memorial, Janesville Craig and Janesville Parker are in Rock County) within Dane County, made the announcement it would cancel all conference competitions for the 2020 fall sports season. That declaration was made mainly in part to all Madison schools, along with Sun Prairie and Middleton, would operate virtually with closed campuses for at least the first semester of the 2020-21 school year.
Polzin and all of the athletic directors in Dane County got together recently and sent a letter to the WIAA showing their support for the CESA #3 model, or “southwest plan,” which suggested that rather than cancel fall sports, the WIAA could move the fall sports to the spring season and the spring to the summer.
“I know there would be problems with that, too, but I think it was the best shot at getting all of our kids a season,” said Polzin. “It’s frustrating for some of our sports because there’s still the unknown.”
Polzin also coaches sports in both the fall (cross country) and spring (track and field) seasons, and the cross country program is in a co-op with Cambridge, which could also create a problem. If students at one school are learning virtually outside of school, will they be allowed to participate with the athletes that are learning inside of school?
“That’s certainly a question right now,” said Polzin. “The Big Eight school obviously have taken a stance where they’re not going to be in school and go virtual, so they’re not going to have sports (in the fall).”
The Deerfield School Board voted Monday night to begin the 2020-21 school year virtually rather than in-person or in a hybrid way, two other options that were considered.
Administrators said they hope to transition gradually to in-person classes over the first quarter of the school year.
Superintendent Michelle Jensen said administrators had been waiting to make a decision about the fall until Public Health Madison & Dane County released its guidance on whether schools should reopen in-person, and what it would take to close them again after they reopen.
But Jensen said Monday night it seemed unlikely that guidance would come down before Aug. 3, the date that the school board wanted to make a decision by.
The WIAA did say that if schools began their fall seasons but then had them cut short, either by more COVID-19 outbreaks or restrictions, that the CESA #3 plan would be offered to them.
Both Cambridge and Deerfield held their football contact days recently.
Deerfield, which normally has five contact days — three football-related days and two team-building days — cut down to two, and will hold two more virtually.
Meanwhile, Cambridge held its contact days last week.
“We broke up into two groups, kept our number down and kept a 6-foot spacing,” said Cambridge head coach and Athletic Director Mike Klingbeil. “I thought we were able to do it successfully.”
Added Nikolay: “It was nice that all of our teams were able to utilize summer contact days, which is encouraging; it makes me think that we can move to our fall seasons.”
WIAA Executive Director Dave Anderson said his recommendation to the board is to move forward with fall sports in some capacity the best they can.
“If I had the magic wand, what I would propose is for those of our members that are available to do so, let’s go with the best we can,” WIAA Executive Director Dave Anderson. “For those that aren’t available to do so, let’s go with a different plan; what I’m advocating for is as much flexibility and as much creativity, and direct staff to build implemented seasons that might occur at different times of the year.”
Every sport the WIAA offers was represented by a Board member or advocate.
“Because of the Board’s action, while they can’t make any guarantees that things will work out as we plan them, they have given us the opportunity to at least hope and work in that direction,” Anderson said. “We understand this decision will make some happy and others disappointed, but we will do our best to deliver to our membership what they have directed us to do.”
“It’s kind of to-be-determined,” Polzin said. “There’s still a lot of unknown; things could change in a couple of weeks.”