What’s the deal with winter sports?

  • Mahar’s Henry Gilmore, left, competes against Athol’s Caleb Cox during a match last year in Orange. The EEA’s most recent guidance makes it unlikely there will be a high school wrestling season this winter. STAFF FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Sports Editor
Published: 11/9/2020 7:21:00 PM

As local high school and youth sport athletes prepare for the winter months ahead, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) released a new set of safety and reopening standards for youth and adult amateur sports activities last week that coincided with Phase III, Step 2 of the Commonwealth’s reopening plan due to COVID-19.

The guidance was the first step in a process that will hopefully lead to some form of a winter sports season on the high school and youth fronts, though there are still no guarantees that games and practices will be played. There is hope, however, that last week’s release can help clear the way for multiple sporting options this winter.

There are still a lot of unknowns, particularly now that we’re entering a season contested largely indoors. In order to help understand the guidance, we’re hoping to answer some frequently asked questions to get the Franklin County community up to speed on what to expect.

In short order, what exactly did the EEA say in its release?

As has been the case throughout the past eight months, the EEA broke all sports and activities into categories of lower risk, moderate risk and higher risk. Each of the three designations were given permission to perform certain activities, ranging from individual and socially-distanced group activities all the way to playing games and tournaments.

We’ll break down some of the winter sport offerings later, but the document also included limiting spectator numbers of both outdoor (no more than 100 in some communities, 50 in others) and indoor (limited to two adults and siblings of participating players) sports. Those numbers are certainly not guarantees, particularly if athletics in Franklin County do happen at the high school level and athletic directors decide to further limit spectators, like they did during the fall season.

Will masks be required?

Yes, facial coverings will be mandatory for all sports. The EEA is mandating that facility operators and activity organizers require all participants to wear them except:

■ During swimming, water polo, water aerobics or other sports where individuals are in the water.

■ For individuals with a documented medical condition or disability that makes them unable to wear a face covering.

While this applies to participants in their respective sports who are competing, it also applies to all spectators and chaperones, coaches, staff, referees, umpires, other officials, etc. If I am covering a game for the newspaper, I’ll be required to wear a mask the entire time. If you’re attending a game as a parent, you’ll be required to wear a mask the entire time.

What’s the next step in the process?

Now that the EEA has released its guidance, the MIAA has its individual sport committees working on sport-specific modifications that will need approval from the Sports Medicine Committee before ultimately getting the go-ahead from the MIAA’s Board of Directors.

It sounds like a lot of steps, but the process should flow quickly at the high school level. I would expect final decisions sometime next week. The MIAA winter sports season has a current starting date of Nov. 30, but that is likely to be amended and pushed back, at least a little bit.

Will there be basketball this winter?

That’s one of the main questions I’ve been receiving from members of the community over the past few weeks and months.

Nothing is guaranteed, but the EEA’s guidance last week at least opened up the door for basketball to be played throughout the Commonwealth at the high school and youth levels. The sport was given a “higher risk” designation, but the guidance allows for certain higher risk sports (basketball, ice hockey, lacrosse, ultimate frisbee) to participate in Level 1, 2 and 3 types of play. That includes games and practices.

Like the fall season, individual schools will need approval, some likely from school committees again, and all scheduling would almost certainly be regionalized again.

The indoor component will be an obstacle for some communities. Several schools have set up their gymnasiums as classroom/other spaces, and that was an issue during the fall volleyball season (and one of the reasons several schools throughout Western Mass. opted out of playing).

Masks will be required at all times to play, and the MIAA Basketball Committee will undoubtedly create some modifications that will limit close defending and contact. It certainly won’t look like basketball as we know it, but there’s a chance.

It also comes down to what Franklin County ADs decide to do. The majority of Hampshire and Hampden County communities decided to play soccer and volleyball this fall, which Franklin County did not. Expect Franklin County (which also includes Athol, Hopkins Academy and Smith Academy for “bubble” purposes) to make decisions in tandem, one way or the other. That group is expected to meet again this week in reference to the winter season.

How about wrestling, and other winter sports?

The one seemingly certain thing that last week’s EEA guidance offered was that there will be no high school wrestling season.

The sport, which was classified as “higher risk,” was looked at differently than basketball and ice hockey because it is “performed indoors and requires sustained high contact.” Along with competitive cheer and pairs figure skating, wrestling is only allowed to participate in Level 1 and modified Level 2 cohort play – essentially individual drills and socially-distanced small group work.

While there will be no wrestling, the sports of alpine and nordic skiing certainly seem good to go. Both are in the “lower risk” category, which means there will likely be very little in the way of modifications.

Franklin County currently has just two alpine ski programs (Mohawk Trail and Frontier), and just one nordic ski program (Mohawk Trail, which co-ops with Hampshire Regional), though there could be additional options for area skiers to participate this winter considering the extreme circumstances. Stay tuned on that front.

As for hockey and swimming, both would require modifications but could still move forward. Hockey rinks just reopened this past weekend in the state after a mandatory two-week shutdown, and area players will need to wear masks in addition to other additional safety procedures. Team swimming is a “moderate risk” sport, and while competitors won’t be required to wear masks while participating in the pool, there would likely be more heats added and other changes required in order to better distance the indoor climate.

Lastly, what are the odds we still get a chance to see some football?

Better than they were even a few weeks ago.

Local high school football teams have practiced throughout the fall, preparing as their season was postponed until the newly-created “Fall II” campaign that will run from late February through April.

Recorder sports reporter Thomas Johnston has written several stories on high school football teams remaining cautiously optimistic that there will be games come February, but the state hadn’t tipped its hand very much in that regard until this round of EEA guidance.

While football is classified as a “higher risk” sport, it has been given clearance to participate in Level 1, 2 and 3 types of play. There was a special designation that it must be performed outdoors, as is the norm, but as of now, there is a path for football to be able to play games come late February. The chain of command will follow, provided things haven’t changed dramatically between now and then, in order to approve local schools for competition.

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