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Return of football nears with improved case rates
Bulletin sports 2020-21
Ripon linebacker Caleb Johnston (56) wraps up Highland quarterback Damien Pecoraro for a sack in the California Interscholastic Federation State Division 4-AA Bowl Game on Dec. 14, 2019. - photo by GARY JENSEN/

Football and other outdoor contact sports have taken a big step toward returning in San Joaquin County, according to the latest COVID-19 data released by the California Department of Public Health on Tuesday.

The county's adjusted case rate has improved to 17.1 per 100,000, down significantly from 25.1 a week ago. 

It's still not enough for high school football teams to begin official practices, however. For that to happen, the county's adjusted case rate must fall to 14 or below. 

Manteca-area high schools are part of the Sac-Joaquin Section, one of 10 Sections in the California Interscholastic Federation. SJS football teams are required to have 14 days of practice before their first games. With most schools already getting their five-day acclimatization out of the way, area teams can open their seasons with contests no earlier than March 19 if the county hits the requisite adjusted case rate. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom and CDPH announced last Friday that this metric will now be used to determine which counties are ready to hold contests in contact sports such as football. Six counties in the state became eligible to start football practices this week, including Contra Costa, Los Angeles and Orange. Thirty-three of the state's 58 counties meet the threshold. Stanislaus (20.8) and Sacramento (15.3) are among the counties that are closing in. 

Previous CDPH guidelines required counties to be in the orange tier for football, soccer and water polo to return, but 47 counties are still in the most-restrictive purple tier. Moderate-contact sports baseball and softball were allowable in the red tier. The new requirement allows for these sports to begin even in counties that are in the purple and red tiers, but weekly coronavirus testing is required for football and water polo players and coaches if the adjusted case rate is between 7 and 14. 

Valley Oak League President and Sierra High Principal Steve Clark told the Manteca Bulletin that athletic directors plan to meet with head coaches Friday to hammer out the details of a potential football season. If the SJS sticks with the CIF Sports Medicine Advisory Committee's recommendation of an April 17 end date for a truncated spring football season, that gives teams from the area up to five games to play. 

Meeting the required adjusted case rate does not guarantee a football season, and schools must first get approval from their districts and boards to participate. 

For this academic year only, the VOL has welcomed small-school powers Escalon, Ripon and Ripon Christian to the fold. The 10 schools — including East Union, Manteca, Sierra, Weston Ranch, Oakdale, Central Catholic and Kimball — are spread across seven different districts. 

There are other issues to weigh, such as player turnout and facility use since the football season is likely to overlap the VOL's Season 1 and Season 2 calendars.  The league is in its second week of the cross country, swimming, girls golf and boys tennis seasons. The Season 2 calendar consists of baseball, softball, boys golf and girls tennis but is soon likely to include soccer and water polo.

For now, indoor sports basketball, volleyball and wrestling still cannot take place until the county reaches the least-restrictive yellow tier.