HARWICH – The modifications are many, but not enough to stop winter sports from happening, which comes as great news to student-athletes across the state and at the local level who are looking forward to starting their seasons on Dec. 14.
In a roughly two-hour meeting on Nov. 20, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) held discussions and votes on the guidelines set forth by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA).
The hot-button items included ensuring proper distancing of players during the ice hockey season and the moving of wrestling not to Fall II, slated to held after the winter season, but to the spring lineup. In a new twist, the sport could potentially be held outdoors, similar to what some colleges and universities do to highlight big matches.
MIAA Assistant Executive Director Phil Napolitano said the impetus for the move was to make a season possible where there otherwise might not have been one. As Napolitano explained during the online meeting, wrestling was deemed a high risk sport, similar to football. Had it remained as a winter sport, it likely would have only been with limited practices and zero competitions.
Even moving it to the Fall II season would have come with complications due in large part to forcing participants to choose between preferred sports, such as football, which is also happening during Fall II.
“Less than 25 percent [of wrestlers] play a spring sport,” Napolitano said, adding that roughly 40 percent of wrestlers play football. Moving wrestling to spring wouldn't force athletes to choose between two sports, offering them more playing opportunities.
While the MIAA's wrestling committee voted unanimously to move the sport to the spring lineup, it still required a vote from the MIAA board, which approved of the move with a 17-3 margin. Also making the move appealing was the ability to move meets and practices outside if the weather and COVID-19 numbers allow.
Also moving its season will be winter track, which will now be held in Fall II due to the lack of available spaces to hold meets given that many locations, such as the Reggie Lewis Center at Roxbury Community College, are closed to the public during the pandemic. Moving the sport to Fall II allows outdoor competitions and the possibility of reopened facilities.
Another heavily discussed item was ice hockey, particularly the impetus to make sure rinks are able to ensure proper social distancing between players on their respective teams. The big question on the minds of many was how to fit 20 players plus coaches on tight benches while making sure social distancing protocol is followed.
“This is not going to be easily done,” said Dan Shine, athletic director at Arlington Catholic. “Schools are really going to have to work with their rink personnel to make space available to spread people out as per modifications. At every rink it's going to be different.”
Monomoy Athletic Director Karen Guillemette said the boys ice hockey team's home ice has been moved from the Hyannis Youth and Community Center to Tony Kent in Dennis, with the relationship with rink officials helped by the fact that head coach Chris Peterson is on the management team at the rink.
Guillemette said she wasn't fazed when it was stated on the MIAA call that it would fall to athletic directors and rinks to establish guidelines and safety plans, versus the MIAA offering a blanket plan for the entire state.
“It's really no different than the fall, because it was up to us in the fall, too, to make sure everything worked,” Guillemette said. “I'm happy with it. I think it's great that at least the kids will have an opportunity to play and [I am] confident in our staff that we can manage the guidelines.”
Major concerns expressed during the meeting involved what players would do during breaks when the ice was being resurfaced, typically time spent in the locker rooms, and where players on teams with large rosters would sit if there was no room on benches. Given that all locker room facilities are closed, where teams will go during such breaks is to be determined.
An amendment regarding roster size was made, stating that home teams must communicate in advance with teams coming from other venues to determine whether the home team facility could accommodate a 20-player roster, and if not, how many could be permitted.
Other ice hockey modifications include socially distant huddles, no post-game team handshakes, mandatory mask wearing throughout game play, only one player at a time in a penalty box, and only one defensive and one offensive player allowed in a scrum along the boards.
Guillemette said she and Peterson will be meeting next week to formulate a plan for the upcoming season.
Basketball got cut a bit of a break when it was decided that rosters could include up to 15 players on game day, a change from a previous 12-person game day roster. As with other sports, social distancing is a must during practices and games, and includes benches (typically folding chairs) and personal gear bags, which must be spaced six feet apart.
Similar to ice hockey, huddles must be socially distant, masks must be worn throughout the game, and hand sanitizer must be readily available. Changes to the game include no jump balls to start game play (instead, a coin toss will determine first possession and a throw-in will start the game), one-at-a-time subs, and free throw lanes limited to four players. Halftime will be eliminated in favor of 2:30 breaks between quarters, and an amendment was added to prevent teams from delaying their departure from a facility after a game.
Guillemette said that while she's not certain what the decision will be regarding fans at games this season – something league athletic directors will be discussing – Monomoy purchased a camera that tracks on-court play via a livestream for people to keep up with the Sharks online. With regard to fans, Guillemette said if allowed, it would likely be similar to the fall, with home fans only.
“It will be strictly enforced as it's inside, compared to outside like it was this fall,” she said. “It's going to be different, for sure. But we haven't set a policy yet.”
Guillemette said she anticipates players on each team will adapt as they did this fall.
“I think as far as play goes, the kids will be fine,” she said. “It will be different, but judging by how well students adapted in the fall, I think the winter will be fine. The one thing that I've heard over and over from the kids is that they just want to have a season.”
As of right now, they will. Practices are set to begin Dec. 14, and Guillemette estimates first games should take place after the holiday break during the week of Jan. 4.
“That's subject to change, like everything, but that's what we're anticipating right now,” she said. “We're working hard to get the kids out there, on the court and on the ice, and do what needs to be done from a managerial standpoint. Our families are phenomenal and see the bigger picture.”