The game changers keep waiting.
Moving schedules around and thinking of other ways to do so. All in a day’s work, they say, to get high school sports back up and running. The wheels are turning, but without much traction.
Three hours on a Zoom meeting here. Couple more there.
On Wednesday morning, the South Carolina High School League appellate committee will hold another one, this time to give a second chance to the now well-known Lexington 1 proposal. It includes flipping some sports to another season, shortening dates and, basically, buying time via a buffer season at the end of the academic calendar for anyone who needs it.
The plan, presented by Lexington 1 Athletics Director Dave Bennett and Superintendent Greg Little, was initially rejected in favor of the SCHSL’s plan, a continuously rolling window that pushes back sports, shortens the seasons and keeps everything in the same order.
It spawned every response imaginable. But what it didn’t do was provide definitive answers.
“You keep dangling that carrot in front of that horse and chasing it, chasing it, chasing it,” St. James football coach Tommy Norwood said. “Everyone wants school and sports to be normal. But that’s probably not going to happen. I just want to be able to look these kids in the eyes and tell them when they’re going to start.”
Grasping at the invisible straws isn’t limited to football.
The South Carolina Baseball Coaches Association, for instance, sent out a two-question survey to coaches asking if they’d be in favor of the Lexington proposal (which attempts to squeeze baseball into the fall first) and if they’d also be in favor of a single-elimination postseason.
Basketball coaches have already started talking about fewer teams making the playoffs. Cross country and track coaches are wondering what staggered start times in distance races will do in terms of performance.
Everyone is curious what the stands may look like.
In reality, no plan is perfect, and just about any one of them is going to include hang-ups when it comes to putting high school sports back in action.
It all begins with the first part of the term “student-athlete.”
E-LEARNING, SPORTS AND TRAVEL
As much as sports are the central figure of the SCHSL’s COVID-19 discussions, athletics has a larger force dictating its discussions.
Primarily, if students aren’t in them, what do sports even look like or can they exist?
SCHSL Commissioner Jerome Singleton said last week that he would be open to the idea of sports during e-learning. However, that doesn’t mean the districts around the state have to or will abide by it. In the end, they have to decide what’s best.
For Horry County Schools, the long-standing policy has been clear: If students aren’t in the brick-and-mortar buildings, they won’t participate in extracurricular activities. The district held strong in the fall of 2018, when mass flooding in pockets of the county resulted in a uniform school closure — the longest on record in district history prior to COVID-19.
It didn’t matter that some of the beach-side schools were largely unaffected and could travel safely. HCS would not break its hard and fast rule. Requests for how the district would address the current COVID-19 crisis in that regard were not immediately answered this week, so it is unclear how it would proceed. However, the district did deny MyHorryNews.com on-campus access for the purposes of preseason, three-person photo shoots, citing that same policy.
District athletics liaison Roger Dixon and representatives from others around the state previously said they didn’t believe their specific counties would allow for sports without in-person schooling.
Now, most of the area’s football coaches are buying into that newest phase of reality.
“If everyone goes virtual, I think it would be real hard to put kids in a football uniform,” Norwood said. “If the biggest school systems end up saying they won’t play, the state association is going to have to get on board.”
When school resumes — and knowing that dates for various districts won’t be enacted simultaneously — the next layer of the onion reveals itself.
No matter which athletics plan is utilized moving forward, there are serious questions about sports travel. Even those sports deemed to be lower risk — cross country, track, golf and swimming — require student-athletes to get from location to location. That means buses, and more of them than normal.
Under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations, the seating for transport vehicles would be minimized to allow for more spacing. For the time being, gone are the days of a large team cramming onto a single bus two to a seat and going from Point A to Point B.
The coaches and athletes will require more space. It’s not cheap.
“We’re already severely strained with the number of bus drivers available,” Aynor Athletics Director Josh Spivey said. “If you take a typical Tuesday afternoon volleyball match, it’s not just one [bus]. Then we have to find another driver. And you have to pay that driver.
“If you look at our smaller sports, tennis or golf, [in the past] we could get by with two rental vans from Enterprise. I don’t see how you can put six students per minivan now. Do we have to put them on a bus? Or is there an option to have parents transport their kids? That’s a liability issue, as well.”
Those financial considerations are popping up around each corner of every theoretical conversation. It’s adding stress to an already stressful situation while also leading some to become more doubtful of fall sports.
Yet, there are those who are looking beyond the pandemic.
DISCUSSIONS OUT OF DISCUSSIONS
Bennett slipped something into Lexington’s initial proposal last week that at first seemed like a mild attempt at keeping the conversation going.
Turns out, the former Coastal Carolina University coach’s idea of moving high school football to the late winter and spring isn’t just COVID-19 related; it’s one that just happens to be taking place because of it. There is a growing number of coaches who think South Carolina could lead the way into a new era of high school football — one that doesn’t happen in the fall.
Since last Wednesday, the idea has been trumpeted around the state by Bennett, Westside and former Myrtle Beach head coach Scott Earley and now a few more coaches closer to home.
“I’d like for us to give it a shot. I was brought up to say that you don’t know until you give it a try,” Socastee football coach Ben Hampton said. “The biggest fear of them all is the fear of the unknown. Who would have thought we’d be talking about spring football in the South. We need to look at the ways of the world. If South Carolina did this, who’s to say that other states wouldn’t hop on board?”
Between weather concerns, gate receipts and scores of other topical reasons — some more important than others — the thought has gained steam in part because there is little else to talk about right now. Hampton admitted that the state’s power brokers never would have even broached the idea of spring football without a push from COVID-19 closures.
Either way, Earley said it has exploratory merit. He has conducted numerous media interviews in the last five days and expects to do more moving forward.
“Corona or no corona, global warming is as influential as anything else,” said Earley, who led Myrtle Beach to the 2008 Class 3A state championship before leaving the area. “Synthetic turf has raised the core temperature. [In the early weeks of the season], you’re trying to survive the season, not enjoy it. I’ve been in this state for 25 years just burning up. Every year, it gets hotter and hotter and hotter. Coaches like to say ‘Kids aren’t tough anymore.’ But that’s not the case. Everything is changing but us.”
Locally, besides Hampton, current Seahawks coach Mickey Wilson said he would be up for the idea, as would Aynor’s Jason Allen, Conway’s Carlton Terry and Carolina Forest’s Marc Morris. Some had conditions.
Terry and Wilson said it would require basketball and football to not be played simultaneously. Morris mentioned a need for an amended NCAA recruiting date. Allen pointed out how a fall weight room schedule could be huge for spring football players.
Expectedly, there are dissenters, too. Norwood, St. James’ coach, for instance, said he prefers high school and college football to be tied to the same portion of the calendar. North Myrtle Beach’s Matt Reel and Green Sea Floyds’ Joey Price said they were also against it for their own various reasons, tradition being at or near the top of the list.
What the pro-winter/spring football crowd comes back to, though, is this:
“If there was ever a time to take a chance, why not now?” Hampton asked.
That conversation may not matter much for this year. The number of coaches in favor of the spring football experiment pales in comparison to those who already believe fall gridiron action will be next to impossible this school year.
UNCERTAINTY IN MOTION
Starting last Thursday, football coaches around the state started releasing their updated football schedules congruent to the SCHSL’s currently adopted plan.
The seven-game regular seasons were mostly front-loaded with region opponents, with non-region foes or a “TBD” in their place near the tail end. Some saw it as a proactive move during a time when they had little other control.
Others chose not to publicize it or so much as address it more than necessary.
“I’m not going to spend four hours of my life that I’ll never get back working on something I know is a waste of time,” Earley said about his non-region games. “The people who are highly intelligent, they’ve already moved on from fall sports.”
As Singleton pointed out, the current standards for anything in the first half of the academic year are about as tentative as they get. He said the SCHSL’s next executive committee meeting (which will take place the first week of August) could include yet another rollback in the athletic calendar, and they’ll continue to do so until sports are deemed safe.
So, while everyone is begging for hard and fast dates, there is an underlying knowledge that nothing is in stone because it can’t be put in stone. Nor does anyone know when that will be possible.
It resonated in the area’s baseball coaches who last week were almost universally against moving their sport to the fall without a back-up option for the end of the school year.
“I see the value of trying to get all sports in for this year, especially after losing our season in the spring, but I hate to see our kids disrupted again and have to worry if they will get to play a full season with COVID and possibly hurricanes,” Loris coach Tim Graham said. “I would be supportive if it’s our best option for everyone to play and if we have some assurance of being able to continue or re-start in [late spring].”
Graham brought up the emotion that he and the rest of coaches and athletes from spring sports are facing. No one wanted them to lose that opportunity.
And no one wants it to happen for any sports for 2020-2021.
“Those seniors never got that closure, that last game. We don’t want to have a repeat of that,” Aynor’s Spivey said. “Right now, it just seems like the hurdles are getting bigger and bigger and bigger. We just try to hold out hope.”
And, in the meantime, spin the wheels.