The governing body for high school sports in the state unveiled its plan for competition in the 2020-21 academic year, putting forth a four-season sports schedule that moves football to the late winter and aims to get everyone in action during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everyone understands the main goal this year is about participation,” Hopkinton High School athletic director Rich Cormier said. “It’s not about winning, it’s not about championships, it’s about giving students the opportunity to participate in the sport they love and be a part of a team.”
Added Cormier: “We need to focus on ways to follow the guidelines and be safe, but we have to be willing to think outside the box.”
Most fall sports, including boys golf, soccer, field hockey, girls volleyball and cross country, will compete from Sept. 18 to Nov. 20 without a postseason sanctioned by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA). These sports, which will be played while the state is still in Phase 3 of its reopening plan, are considered safer to play during the pandemic than football, which requires an excessive amount of contact.
But Cornier stressed that, with the possible exception of golf, there will be challenges associated with playing any of these sports during the health crisis.
“A lot of people seem to think cross country is not all that difficult to socially distance, but I would argue many people have not seen a cross country race,” Cormier said. “The start of the race is a lot of students gathered together and it would be challenging to ask students to run that distance wearing a mask.”
Whether masks will be required for runners, or whether races are broken up into small groups remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, though: The Hillers’ home meets will not be at Hopkinton State Park, because the team’s permit request was denied. So the meets will be held behind the school.
Other sport-specific guidance still is to be determined. Cormier said he is particularly interested to see what rules are in place for sports like soccer and field hockey that often involve some contact between participants.
Under the current MIAA plan, the fall season would be followed by winter sports from Nov. 30 to Feb. 21 and the spring season would take place between April 26 and July 3. There would also be a second “fall season” for football, cheerleading and unified basketball that would take place from Feb. 22 to April 25, starting football in the dead of winter.
“The weather will be challenging, but football can be played in any weather,” Hillers coach Dan MacLean said. “As long as we have a season. I just want these kids to have a season, we don’t care if there’s snow or rain.”
When the state issued guidance effectively banning contact last month, MacLean worried that the season was in jeopardy.
“It was breaking my heart, these kids have worked hard regardless of what has gone on, they worked their butts off all offseason for this season coming up,” MacLean said, adding that he feels Hopkinton has a good team coming back with a strong group of seniors.
“Now we have time, we can have the kids condition during the fall and get ready for the February season,” MacLean said. “Most likely we will have a league season, and it’s always a goal of ours to compete for the league.”
While football players may elect to sit out the first fall season, it’s likely the MIAA will allow for out-of-season contact with players, meaning MacLean could work with his players in September. But one quirk of the new schedule is that students may be able to play four sports.
“I think that’s a cool byproduct, for sure,” Cormier said. “I don’t know how many students will take advantage of that, but maybe they can participate in a sport they haven’t before but enjoy, like golf, or something they played as a youth but then had to pick when they got to high school. There are opportunities there for students, and that’s what this is all about.”