IHSA Seasons are Set–Let the Games Begin

Darren Kinnard

It’s a day some thought might not come, a day others felt should’ve come long ago. Either way, after a special Board of Directors meeting Wednesday, the IHSA released the schedule for its final three seasons to be played over the next five months.

It’s a schedule that features all sports being played, but with abbreviated seasons. Traditional spring sports will play longer and have chance at postseason after being canceled entirely last school year.

“We understood the high level of anticipation surrounding today’s announcement, along with the scrutiny that will accompany it,” said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson. “Ultimately, the Board adhered to its stated goals throughout the pandemic: providing an opportunity for every IHSA student-athlete to compete safely this year and maximizing opportunities for traditional IHSA spring sports after they lost their entire season a year ago.”

After getting the go ahead from the Illinois Department of Public Health last Friday for schools to play High Risk sports in COVID regions that reach Phase 4, the IHSA kept its three high profile High Risk sports in separate seasons. Basketball will be first, followed by football, then wrestling. None of those sports will have a postseason.

Basketball starts immediately. Teams will be able to play games after they get in seven days of practices. The season will run through March 13. The IHSA has not set a games limit, rather leaving that to the school to “be smart” about scheduling.

Boys swimming and diving, boys and girls bowling, dance and cheerleading also can begin immediately and will run through March 13. There will be no postseason for the swimming and diving or bowling, but dance and cheer will have virtual postseasons.

Football can start practice March 3 with a maximum of six games played between March 19 and April 24. Individual players are required to have 12 practice days in before games can be played. The start of football practice overlaps with the end of the basketball season. Basketball players who plan to play football will only need practice 10 different days before playing. Movement between other sports, such as basketball to volleyball, will not require the extra practice days before being eligible to play.

When asked in the press conference whether more practice time before the first football game was considered in light of the fact many have not had any football-type level of contact in a year and a half, Anderson said it was considered. The physical nature of football is a concern, but the IHSA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee felt 12 practices was sufficient moving forward.

“The IHSA SMAC reminds member schools that student-athletes may need additional conditioning in order to participate in a full schedule this season. In addition to season/practice requirements, care needs to be given to each student’s individual acclimation as they return to play. When building schedules, attention needs to be given to academic pressure, changes from in-person to remote learning, changes between tiers of mitigation, time spent traveling to events, appropriate time to practice/learn the sport between games, etc. to ensure the student experience truly enhances the academic day.”

Boys soccer will run March 1 through April 17 with no match limit and no postseason. Girls volleyball will run March 8 through April 24, also with no match limit and no postseason.

The traditional spring sports will have the addition of wrestling in the new “summer” season. Baseball, softball, boys girls soccer, boys tennis, as well as boys and girls track and field will all run April 5 through June 19. There are no games limits, and postseason is still “To Be Determined.”

“The Board wants to do everything in their power to prevent spring sports from going two consecutive years with no postseason IHSA play,” said Anderson. “There are obviously no guarantees, as risk levels by sport and local region mitigation statuses will factor significantly. Postseason could mean being limited to a Regional or Sectional level of competition, but we have not ruled out the idea of playing a full state tournament in these traditional spring sports if possible. The overwhelming feedback we have heard from athletic directors and coaches was that returning to play in all sports should be the main goal.”

Wrestling, the third major High Risk sport, will run April 5 through June 12 with no postseason.

“I recognize that many schools and coaches could likely offer a tweak here or there that would have, in their opinion, made it ‘better’ for their school or sport. Our Board faced an impossible task with a litany of factors. They were conscientious in considering every possibility and I believe their decisions today are a positive step for the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of our students. We are excited to channel our energy into creating as many positive experiences for Illinois high school students as we can between now and the end of this extraordinary school year.”

So what will the game day experience look like? The IHSA reaffirmed that guidelines require all student-athletes to participate in masks with the exception of swimming and diving, gymnasts on an apparatus, and outdoor events where social distancing can occur. The mask mandate includes all game personnel not participating in the contest, and they must adhere to social distancing.

As far as fans, the IDPH guidance for number of spectators holds: limit of 50 in Phase 4, limit of 25 in Tier 1, no spectators allowed in Tier 2.

“We still have regions of the state that need to make strides in order be able to play basketball this winter,” said Anderson. “That underscores the importance of our schools following all the mitigations and precautions. We need to maintain a positive trajectory not only to get winter sports going, but to make sure we do not have any regions regress before spring and summer sports have their opportunity. We can all do our part by wearing a mask and socially distancing.”

That includes Region 4 that extends from the Metro-East to Washington County. That region has not moved up from Tier 2 yet. It could reach Tier 1 in the next day or two. When that happens, schools in this region will be able to hold contests for Medium Risk sports and scrimmage practices for High Risk sports. Games will not be allowed in High Risk sports until the region reaches Phase 4. This is a problem for the SIRR Mississippi (Nashville/Sparta) and South 7 (Althoff/Cahokia) which have two of their six members in Region 4. Chester out of the Black Diamond is also in Region 4.

The Board also agreed to consider other participation opportunities for a given sport, such as basketball, if the sport is unable to be played in a specific region.

“We have said from day one that if and when we were allowed to play again this year, the situation would be fluid,” said Anderson. “We don’t feel great about the notion of some schools falling behind based on their Region’s status, but also recognize that we are running out of time and can’t afford to hold back the Regions that can play.”

One of the other big questions has centered on athletes that play on club or travel teams in sports that have moved seasons. In October, the Board ruled that students who play sports (football, boys soccer, girls volleyball) that were displaced from their traditional season could participate on high school and non-school teams simultaneously. The Board affirmed this position in Wednesday’s meeting with additional sports moving out of their traditional seasons, and also ruled that girls and boys basketball players will need to cease non-school team participation within seven days of their first high school game.

All sports that are out-of-season can conduct contact days through June 4. Contact days are limited to three days per week per sport with a maximum of six hours of contact per week with no interscholastic competition.

With all the parameters in place, now athletic directors throughout the state are working feverishly to put together updated schedules in multiple sports. Many would argue that falls in the “Good Problem” category, considering the bleak outlook for high school sports in Illinois less than two weeks ago.

Let the games begin!