It may be too soon to make decisions on contingency plans for high school football games in West Virginia this season, but it’s certainly not too early to talk about them.
That’s why Bernie Dolan, executive director of the Secondary School Activities Commission, expects to continue discussions on those topics with his Board of Directors in the coming days. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the course of high school athletics in the state for the past three months, and the arrival of football season brings new questions to the fore.
Dolan acknowledged that the Board of Directors will look at several items regarding football issues. Among them:
n What if a player or coach tests positive and his team is quarantined for two weeks and misses games? Will those be considered forfeits, or ruled no contests?
n What if a school loses a game or two or three from its schedule because an out-of-state opponent isn’t permitted to play due to the virus? Eight games has been the recognized minimum for teams to qualify for the playoffs.
n Will there be a limited number of fans allowed at games this season, or no fans at all?
n Will preseason scrimmages also be scrubbed? The SSAC has already outlawed contact for the upcoming three-week practice period, a change in previous routine.
n How often will game officials be tested for COVID-19?
Preseason practice is set to begin Aug. 3 around the state, and the regular season kicks off the weekend of Aug. 27-29. But the questions have already started to mount, and the answers might take a while to formulate.
“It is a little early to talk about contingencies,’’ Dolan said. “During the spring, we kept working on contingencies [for spring sports] and you’d get up to date, and then have to work on different contingencies. The focus has been trying to plan on things as normal, and at least let it play out for a while.
“For some of those things, it’s not going to be my call. It’s probably going to be the health department. Instead of the whole state, they might just shut down certain parts.’’
Most schools around the state are well into Phase 1 of the SSAC’s comeback plan for athletics, which is focusing on strength, conditioning and agility following three months of players being largely on their own for workouts. Even in Phases 2 and 3, however, no contact is allowed, teams cannot practice against one another as in the past, and helmets and shoulder pads cannot be worn.
As of now, players won’t be able to wear helmets and shoulder pads in practice until Aug. 7 and can’t hit each other until Aug. 11, three days before preseason scrimmages are permitted. But in the days of coronavirus, that’s a long way off, as Dolan knows all too well after seeing spring sports canceled statewide on April 21, about five weeks after they were supposed to start, but didn’t.
Dolan recently took time to address a few of the football concerns listed above:
n Forfeits/no contests for canceled games: “The board hasn’t weighed in on that,’’ Dolan said, “but I expect it to be a no contest, for this particular case. Because oftentimes, it’s not them making the choice not to play.’’
n Minimum number of games: “That hasn’t been approved by the board,’’ Dolan said, “but I would expect they’ll look at the minimum number of games in class as well as the minimum number of games to qualify.’’
There was no word on protocol if teams were limited to five, six or seven games because outside opponents weren’t permitted to play. Coaches for defending state champions Martinsburg (Class AAA) and Wheeling Central (A) are both in the situation of playing several teams from bordering states — Central has eight such games and Martinsburg four.
“The good thing there is our system,’’ Dolan said of the bonus-point rating system, which ranks playoff teams by average instead of total points. “It’s fairly consistent whether you’ve played eight games, nine games or 10 games. With the bonus factor in there, it does protect us a little bit.’’
Dolan pointed out that in football, just like other sports, schools are able to play an opponent more than once during the regular season if circumstances call off a scheduled game and a quick fill-in becomes necessary.
n Fans/no fans: Again, Dolan said the SSAC will likely defer to the advice of health officials while following social distancing regulations.
“We’re anxiously watching the Little League and soccer seasons,’’ Dolan said, “to see if there are any concerns during those seasons. We’re also watching Iowa, which plays its regular baseball and softball games in the summer. We’ll watch that and see how it goes.’’
Iowa, which began its regular seasons on Monday, is the only state that holds its high school baseball and softball seasons during the summer months.
n COVID-19 tests for officials: Dolan said guidelines haven’t been determined yet, but said the SSAC will work with state and local health officials and the National Federation of State High School Associations to determine requirements and where officials can go to be tested.
n Scrimmages: With the way 2020 has gone, it wouldn’t be surprising if preseason scrimmages also fall by the wayside. Dolan said that topic may be discussed. As of now, teams are permitted to engage opponents in two practice games during the weekends of Aug. 14-15 and 21-22.
Dolan said the SSAC has already switched its annual summertime coaches clinics and officials clinics to online meetings this year instead of face-to-face functions.
Other items where the SSAC may work with schools involve virtual ticketing if attendance must be limited and an emphasis on having more games streamed in the event fans are not permitted to attend at all.
“Schools might want to use the [virtual ticketing],’’ Dolan said, “because you don’t want a large number of people showing up outside the gates at a game where they hit their limit [of ticket sales]. You could have a digital presale of tickets, or presales in person. You don’t want people showing up to a game without the assurance of getting in.
“And we’ll work with schools on a method of how they can broadcast games if we’re not allowed to have any fans — maybe pay-per-view for the season or for individual games. We had some ideas and vendors we’re looking at. Schools will be hurting if there’s no fans in the stands. They have to make their money somehow [on football] — there are a lot of fixed costs that go into it, and if you don’t have the opportunity to make that up, it would be difficult.’’