Start of fall high school sports season pushed back to October
There will be a high school sports season in New Jersey this fall, but it won’t look anything like a normal year.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association on Friday released an update to its return-to-play guidelines that includes major changes to the structure of the fall season.
The NJSIAA COVID-19 Sports Advisory Task Force announced its “Model 1 – Delayed Fall Season” guidelines on Friday afternoon that will push back the start of the season until October. For football, practices will begin on Sept. 14 and the regular season will start on Oct. 2 and conclude on Nov. 8. The playoffs will be conducted from Nov. 13 to Nov. 22. Thanksgiving football games may be played after Sunday, Nov. 22, at each school’s discretion.
“The NJSIAA will strive to open post-season participation to any school wishing to participate,” the guidelines stated.
All other sports may also begin practices on Sept. 14. The regular season for those sports, with the exception of girls tennis, can begin on Oct. 1 and will conclude on Nov. 12. The postseason dates will also be Nov. 13 to No. 22. The regular season for girls tennis will start on Sept. 28 and run through Oct. 23 with the postseason to be contested between Oct. 26 and Oct. 31. There will be no singles or doubles state tournament, however, only a team tournament.
The NJSIAA summer recess period will run from July 13 through August 28. Any decision to move away from the Model 1 – Delayed Fall Season will be made no later than Aug. 28. The NJSIAA also said it is ‘devising multiple contingency models should there be a need to pivot as school-related and health-related circumstances evolve’.
Pushing the start of the season back a little over a month was done to give schools time to safety re-open and begin planning for a fall sports season.
“The Task Force recognizes that returning to school is the main priority and that all student-athletes should acclimate to the classroom before they begin their fall sports season,” the NJSIAA said in a release. “By delaying the start of practices until after the school year begins, schools will have the opportunity to open their buildings and work through the logistics of their modified school day before extra-curricular activities start. By reducing the length of the season, student-athletes will not only have the opportunity for participation but will have more time to focus on their academic requirements.”
“High school sports are school-based, so we need to first ensure all is in order with the opening of our schools,” said Colleen Maguire, NJSIAA Chief Operating Officer. “After that, we can begin playing sports. To be clear, our goal is to return to play – while making sure that health, safety, emotional well-being, and academics come first. We have a different model than some other types of programs that are far smaller in scale and operate independently. We have a duty to ensure that New Jersey’s schools and their more than 1.5 million students and teachers, including 283,000 high school student-athletes, can first return to school and their academics, and then participate in extracurricular activities like sports.”
"It makes sense from that standpoint with so many variables opening schools," said Rich Carroll, the past president of the Shore Conference and the Athletic Director for the Middletown School District. "One big thing we talk about is transportation. Giving us a couple of extra weeks to get up and running will help us figure out what we can and can't do, athletically."
The NJSIAA is strongly recommending to its leagues and conferences that they 'revise schedules to emphasize local competition and minimize the number of different schools that come in contact with each other. Smaller divisions of schools for competition purposes is encouraged in order to facilitate communications and scheduling'.
A virtual contact period will run from August 29 through Sept. 13. Fall coaches only may have virtual contact with their players but there cannot be in-person practices, scrimmage or games.
Teams will be allowed to participate in only one preseason scrimmage and it must be with a neighboring school. The scrimmage may occur any time within seven days of the start of the regular season for the respective sport. Schools are encouraged to participate in intra-squad scrimmages and use officials to replicate the usual scrimmage environment.
For the playoffs, seeding committees will be used to put together playoff brackets, which in football will eliminate the power-point system that has been used to place teams in the postseason. The postseason will also remain local and will result in, at most, a sectional championship or less.
Any out-of-state competition must be approved by the NJSIAA and the request must be submitted two weeks prior to the competition date.
Student-athletes who were set to be held to a transfer sit period will be eligible for participation on Thursday, Oct. 15 and is applicable to every fall sport.
"The last couple of weeks have been tough to watch the trend with some leagues closing up shop. It's almost like a precursor to doomsday for us," said longtime Middletown South head football coach Steve Antonucci. "To see today that the plan is to move forward but delayed is the best opportunity for our kids. It's what we've been trying to do since day one. But it still remains to be seen whether we can do it or not."
The guiding principles outlined by the Sports Advisory Task Force included:
- Ensuring the health and safety of all student-athletes.
- Re-engaging all student-athletes as soon as possible for their social, emotional and mental well-being.
- Maximize participation across all sports and all student-athletes.
- Keep competition as local as possible for as long as possible
- Develop multiple return-to-play models to minimize the risk of a canceled season.
- Maintain the ability to pivot to backup plans when deemed necessary.
- Minimize potential impact on the spring season.
- Minimize the importance of postseason, state-wide championships.
In a memo to NJSIAA member schools, the NJSIAA Sports Advisory Task Force said: “This plan is the first model to be provided in what will be a series of return to play models that will be in place for the 2020-2021 school year. The goal of the task force is to identify multiple back-up models that will be available as both school-related and health-related circumstances evolve.”
In the Shore Conference, sweeping changes will need to be made to schedules, especially in football where the divisions are not based on geography. Shore Conference President Will Sundermann, the Athletic Director for the Pinelands Regional School District, said changing the divisions to localize competition is on the table.
"Now that we have an update on returning to play in the fall we are currently examining all Shore Conference fall schedules," Sundermann said.
"We're looking at all the options we can for scheduling right now," added Shore Regional Athletic Director Harry Chebookjian, who also sits on the Shore Conference Executive Committee. "The main focus now is just to get the kids back out. Obviously it will be something regional but we haven't nailed anything down."
Normally, the schedule and division alignment are among the most scrutinized aspects of the football season. Now, it's all about setting up schools to make it through the season with limited travel and exposure to different teams.
"At this point, the schedule is irrelevant. It's about getting kids back to playing the game," Antonucci said. "Tell us when to be there and we'll be there. It won't be normal, but it will be a relief for all of us."
The status of Ocean County and Monmouth County Tournaments/Championships and Shore Conference Tournaments are still undecided, Sundermann said.
As for sub-varsity sports, any decision regarding whether they will also compete or if there will be only one team will be up to the individual districts.
"The Shore Conference will never make a statement not to have kids play sub-varsity sports," Sundermann said. "Specifically, at Pinelands if we weren't able to have 7th or 8th-grade teams or sub-varsity teams, we would lose those kids and they wouldn't come back. I think we have to do whatever we can to get some sense of normalcy for these kids."
"My job is to give as many opportunities as possible for students in a safe manner," Carroll said. "There could be school districts who chose not to participate but think all of us want to give as many opportunities to kids as we can."
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.