COLUMN: NJSIAA makes more adjustments to high school sports schedules

By TOM WILLIAMS

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association today announced modifications to the sports schedule for 2020-21 in its continuing effort to keep high school sports alive for New Jersey’s student-athletes.

Today the NJSIAA announced a new schedule for winter sports (basketball, wrestling, swimming, indoor track) that shortens and adjusts the schedule.

Under the traditional schedule, the winter season would have started on Dec. 18 and the regular season ended on Feb. 28 for basketball. The state basketball tournament would have run from March 1-14 with the Tournament of Champions being played from March 15-22. Wrestling would have held districts Feb. 26-27 followed by regions and the state tournament the first two weekends in March.

But today’s announcement set the start of the winter season at Dec. 21 and the end of the regular season at Feb. 3 – cutting nearly four weeks off the schedule. Practice for winter sports, which normally would have begun on Nov. 23, will start on Dec. 2.

An NJSIAA basketball tournament would likely follow the regular season, though no specific format for the post-season was announced.

Girls volleyball, which is normally a fall sport, is being scheduled for a March 3 start along with gymnastics. There are currently 10 schools in the Cape-Atlantic League that have varsity girls volleyball teams. They had announced a traditional fall schedule but will now have to re-create it for March.

No changes were announced regarding the other fall sports. Currently, practice for football, soccer, field hockey and cross country may begin on Sept. 14 with girls tennis allowed to begin matches on Sept. 28 and the other sports on Oct. 2.

No announcement was made regarding spring sports, though you can expect the NJSIAA to make every effort to give those athletes as full a season as possible because they lost their season this year.

This new winter schedule – which seems to allow for a maximum of 18 games if schools are permitted three games per week – could put the CAL Basketball Tournament in jeopardy. The Cape-Atlantic League athletics directors are scheduled to meet next week and that will likely be a high priority.

One of the things they have to concerned with is the use of neutral facilities. It is questionable, for example, if Stockton University will allow its facilities to be used for high school cross country, basketball or soccer. Even schools within the CAL that host tournaments and showcases – like Absegami, Atlantic City, Egg Harbor Township, Mainland, Ocean City and Vineland – might be reluctant to host those events.

And the one thing that has not been specifically addressed is the presence of fans at these games. Will there just be family members of the players? Will families have to sit apart from each other? At football games, how will the marching band and cheerleaders be governed? Will there be any fans allowed at all? Also, how many officials will agree to work these games?

It is expected that the CAL will create four geographically based divisions for winter sports, as they have done for fall sports. The four divisions are Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic One and Atlantic Two.

The NJSIAA and Gov. Phil Murphy are both working to give the student-athletes a chance to compete during the 2020-21 school year in spite of the ongoing pandemic surrounding COVID-19. But there are likely still obstacles.

For example, a player on the Pleasantville football team tested positive for the virus earlier this week, forcing the entire team into a 14-day quarantine. They are interrupting that quarantine briefly today to test the other football players. If none are positive, they will just wait out the 14 days. But if another player tests positive, the 14 days could start over today.

This situation will apply throughout the fall season. If a player or coach tests positive, depending on the circumstances, the team will likely be locked down. If that happens after the season starts, a team could be unable to play the next two to five games on its schedule, depending on the sport.

Earlier this week, Atlantic City, Bridgeton, Egg Harbor Township, Millville, Pleasantville and Vineland all announced their school year will start with virtual classes. Nearly 100 other districts throughout the state – including Camden, Burlington Township, Willingboro, Audubon, Collingswood, Eastern, Haddon Heights, Delsea, Deptford, Toms River and Lacey Township – have all announced virtual school openings. Some plan to move to a mix of in-school school and virtual classes within a month, others not until February.

Everybody wants high school sports to return next month, giving the student-athletes a chance to play as often as possible. You can do your part toward that goal by wearing a mask every time you leave the house, staying 6-10 feet apart in public and washing your hands frequently.

But the final decision will likely come down to whether schools and the NJSIAA will accept the liability of scheduling games during a pandemic when more and more schools every day are backing away from in-school classes to start the school year. While holding sports events when a school is not bringing students into the building for classes has been approved by the governor, there are a lot of obstacles. Not the least of which is getting that athlete to practice every day and home after practice.

Rutgers has cancelled fall sports. So has Princeton, Monmouth, the entire New Jersey Athletic Conference and the Atlantic-Cape Middle School League. But lets hope a way can be found for high school sports in New Jersey to be played – and played safely.

You can expect more announcements and adjustments as circumstances change.

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