Battle of the Pines

Players from Union Pines and Pinecrest square off as part of the “Battle of the Pines” on Sept. 13, 2019.

A decision on whether high school sports takes place this fall hinges on whether students will return to the classroom next month.

N.C. High School Athletic Association Commissioner Que Tucker said Wednesday afternoon that it would be “difficult to imagine” sports starting in the fall if schools remain closed because of coronavirus pandemic.

“Sports don’t exist if there’s no school,” Tucker said during an online teleconference with 100 media members. “We want our students back in the classroom safely. Once that can occur, then we want them to be able to play. … We believe that education comes first and that athletics is an extension of the classroom.”

Currently, the official start date for high school sports practice is Aug. 1, and teams could begin playing Aug. 17.

“We know everyone wants a decision about whether or not fall sports will start on time,” Tucker said. “We know that everyone wants to know, in particular, will the Friday night lights be on for our schools across the state, starting in August or would it be September. But we simply cannot give you that answer at this time.

“We can tell you that we believe that the governor, unless he feels that conditions will allow students to return to some form of in-person learning safely, it is difficult to imagine that high school athletics would be able to resume any type of competition at our member schools. If it is unsafe for our students to be in school, then certainly the idea is that it would be unsafe for our students to be playing in those athletic venues.”

The association decided to end what is called its dead period June 15 — that means teams cannot practice or hold any type of workouts — but each school district is allowed to decide when voluntary workouts can begin.

Moore County initially set a date of July 6 and later delayed it until July 20. Presumably by then the state would be able to say how schools will be allowed to open next month  — in-person, remote learning or a combination of the two — and also whether it will move into the third phase of its reopening plan that would allow larger public gatherings.

Tucker said the NCHSAA on Tuesday sent 162 surveys to the athletic directors of its school systems to find out how many had started voluntary workouts.

The association had received 72 of those Wednesday morning, with 53 percent indicating that their schools had started workouts. Tucker said 36 percent haven’t started but have set a date to get underway in the near future.

The NCHSAA has adopted a three-phase approach for allowing teams to begin practicing. They have released phase one while phase two and three will be released in the coming weeks in consultation with state leaders, according to the NCHSAA website.

Schools must have things like personal protection equipment, hand sanitizers, sanitizing wipes and digital thermometers available before workouts start.

The workouts will be like nothing ever seen before. Take for example football. According to the guidelines, there can be no more than 25 people, including coaches, managers and trainers, working out at one time if the workouts are outside, 10 in an indoor setting. If one individual is detected with COVID-19, everyone in that pod must self-isolate for 14 days.

Wearing protective equipment is prohibited, and only conditioning and individual drills can be held. A player must not participate in drills with a single ball that will be handed off or passed to other teammates. Contact with another player is not allowed. Tackling dummies/donuts/sleds must be disinfected after every use.

For volleyball, each player must have her own ball. A player must not participate in drills with a single ball that will be bumped, served or passed to other teammates, according to the guidelines.

Tucker said the association will do the best it can to give students and opportunity to be on the field or court safely. She said the NCHSAA has numerous plans, but “until we know how schools will reopen we’ll work behind scenes to determine the best path forward.”

“A lot of factors play into decisions we make,” Tucker said.

Tucker said once Cooper makes his announcement, then they will have “a better feel” for when practices can start — Aug. 1, Aug. 15 or even Sept. 1. She said the association is open to starting the season later with a shortened season, a shortened playoff and even just a conference championship ending the season.

Tucker was asked about flip-flopping fall and spring sports. She noted that spring athletes are not working out now and said the entire membership would have to buy into that plan. 

She said if public health officials say contact sports can’t be played this fall, “that’s a moment of reckoning,” and the NCHSAA and its board will have to make a decision about potentially moving sports and try to play lower risk sports.

Public schools were closed in mid-March because of the pandemic just as spring sports — baseball, girls soccer, boys and girls lacrosse, boys tennis, boys golf and track and field -— were getting underway. Teams managed to get a few games in before the season ended.

It also forced the cancellation of the boys and girls basketball state championship games.

Contact David Sinclair at (910) 693-2462 or dsinclair@thepilot.com.

(1) comment

Brian Hicks

There will be no HS or college football in the fall. I just don’t see how it’s safely possible, i hope college successfully moves to the spring, somehow!

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