The California Interscholastic Federation has punted the fall sports season to the winter holiday break.
On Monday, the state's governing body for high school athletics released a revised schedule of its regional and state championship events and left it up to its 10 sections to come up with their own calendars.
The announcement, though much-anticipated, was not all that surprising, nor does it guarantee that sports will take place. Coronavirus cases continue to swell in various parts of the state, and school districts are beginning the school year with distance learning, per recommendations by county and state health officials. The California Community College Athletic Association approved a similar plan two weeks ago, suspending all fall and winter sports until mid-January.
“I think we are doing everything humanely possible to have high school sports this year,” Sac-Joaquin Section Assistant Commissioner Will DeBoard said. “The only way we are going to have absolutely zero sports is if things are so rough and we just can't.”
Manteca Unified's five high schools, Ripon High and Ripon Christian are members of the SJS, which, like most sections, has fallen in line with the CIF's postseason schedule. The official first day of practice for football in the SJS is set for Dec. 7, scrimmages on New Year's Eve and season openers on Jan. 8, 2020. Meanwhile, all winter sports are clumped together with spring sports — boys and girls basketball tip off on March 9 (practices begin Feb. 22) while the start of baseball and softball follow two weeks later. Some of the traditional spring sports, including track, run past graduations and well into June.
The Northern Section — covering counties such as Butte, Colusa, Lassen and Shasta that are less affected by the pandemic — is moving forward with its normal sports calendar, but its schools are disqualified from participating in the CIF regional and state playoffs.
“Over the last couple months, we have been exploring, developing and reviewing a variety of different scenarios to deliver fall, winter and spring sports — this has been done both state and section wide,” SJS Commissioner Mike Garrison stated on a memo posted on the section website. “Because of the complexities and fluidity of the COVID pandemic situation, it has required our organization to take a slow and methodical approach with consistent re-evaluation of plans.”
The current plan condenses three seasons into two, though in the SJS teams are allowed to keep the maximum allowable contacts. While the regular season remains close in length, the postseason has been cut short at the section and state levels.
For example, regular season for football will remain 11 weeks long, allowing teams to have byes, but the section playoffs will be a week shorter. Twelve-team brackets will shrink to eight, leading to more divisions — the SJS currently has seven divisions for football. State playoffs will be limited to a week, so that means football and basketball seasons are likely to end at the regional (NorCal/SoCal) championships.
Boys volleyball shifts from the spring and joins girls volleyball in the “fall,” while girls golf and girls tennis move from fall to spring.
DeBoard said that the section was anticipating for girls golf and tennis being available for the fall, but hopes for that dimmed considerably in the last week with schools moving to distance learning.
“We realized that was not going to be feasible,” DeBoard said. “If schools are not in session we're certainly not going to be having them play sports, so we had to move it and golf and tennis don't do very well in the winter. It was a situation in which they were forced there (to the spring), and I don't think that's necessarily ideal.”
Golf and tennis teams will have to make do with limited facilities, and DeBoard said that while there is a rule forbidding girls and boys of these sports to practice together the section is likely to let it slide for this year.
“For us, I don't see it being an issue,” Manteca boys tennis coach Frank Fontana said. He and girls coach MaryAnn Tolbert help out with each other's teams anyway.
The bigger concerns may be for those who coach both genders of either sport. Dennis Wells is approaching his 20th year as coach for both of East Union's golf teams. He also assists head pro Jeff DeBenedetti with instruction at Manteca Park Golf Course.
“I'll probably have to keep teams smaller if I'm coaching both teams at the same time,” Wells said. “I'll have to miss some practices too, while one of the teams has a match or a tournament. I'm not sure how we're going to pull this off.”
Manteca Park Golf Course may be a bit more crowded from mid-March to late May, as boys and girls teams from East Union, Manteca, Sierra and Lathrop call that track home.
The new schedule hampers much of the smaller schools that depend on multi-sport athletes to fill the rosters. Ripon Christian is one of the section's smallest schools with less than 200 students, though Athletic Director Kevin Tameling said the Knights should not have trouble fielding teams since a high percentage of the student body participates in at least one sport.
“I was a little shocked that this was the decision to shove to season into one, but we're still trying to process what that might look like for our school and student-athletes right now,” Tameling said.
Athletes may participate in multiple sports in a single season — there has never been a rule against it, in fact. Last winter, Lathrop High sophomore Isabella Paniagua was an All-Western Athletic Conference selection in both basketball and soccer while able to maintain good grades.
Also on Monday, the CIF and section eliminated “Dead Periods” for all sports, so teams may commence with their normal summer routine over the fall, as long as school districts and counties deem it safe.
There are also temporary suspensions of bylaws that prohibit student-athletes to participate in club or travel-ball activities simultaneous to their high school seasons. This may be an issue for sports such as soccer, which is typically played over the winter in the high school circuit. High-level players typically shift into the high-comp season in the spring.
Longtime Sierra coach Manuel Pires said he has lost a few top-caliber players to the club season back when girls soccer took place in the spring. He said it's demanding for athletes to compete for their high school and club teams at the same time. There are some players who may ditch soccer altogether in favor of a spring sport.
“This is going to be a huge challenge,” Pires said. “Some of these club teams don't really want their kids to be overloaded by playing on another team. Now it's not only just the competitive (clubs) we have to compete with, we'll have kids who are going to have to make another decision — do I want to do softball, swimming, track or soccer?”
DeBoard added that the realignment meetings are being moved to earlier dates, likely starting in October and running through January. The current realignment cycle is entering its third of four years.
“Like everybody else, I'm curious to see how this works out,” DeBoard said. “We just don't' know what things are going to look like down the road. We're just hopeful to get back to a sense of normalcy.”