Cooped-up student-athletes received a cautionary green light from Massachusetts to play nearly all winter and spring sports in the midst of the pandemic.
Hockey, football, and basketball, as well as rugby, track & field, volleyball, and lacrosse athletes will be allowed to both practice and compete as long as they adapt and adhere to a lengthy and detailed list of health and safety protocols designed to minimize the spread of COVID-19, according to new guidance issued by the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs on Friday.
Two notable exceptions: Wrestlers and competitive cheerleaders will not be allowed to compete, and face multiple restrictions on their practice sessions.
The new guidance arrived the same day as Gov. Charlie Baker’s new COVID-19 orders — which include mandatory mask wearing, early closing time for businesses and night-time stay-at-home advisories — took effect.
Baker did not address the sports guidelines in a press briefing Friday, but emphasized the mental and physical development benefits derived from in-school learning versus the more sedentary at-home virtual learning lifestyle.
Partaking, safely, in most sports at more schools reflect community goals the state is trying to attain.
“These kids deserve an opportunity to try,” said Cheryl Seavey, who coached the Bridgewater-Raynham girls' basketball team to the Division 1 South title last March. “My team will do whatever it takes to get the chance to participate. The big push is to do it safely. We will follow the regulations to a tee. Wear a mask? Yes. Sanitize every four minutes? Yes!”
“Relief” was the first reaction felt by Bob Rodgers, AD/basketball coach at Whitman-Hanson and a member of the MIAA Basketball Committee.
“I am glad that people recognize that we have to work and find a way to give kids these important activities,” Rodgers said. “We want to do everything we can to preserve these special moments in their life. But at the same time all of us are charged with keeping people safe.”
Plans are not yet finalized.
What happens next is that assorted sports subcommittees will review the EEA guidelines, and then create sport-specific modifications intended to keep athletes, coaches, referees, and spectators safe.
There likely will not be any formal response from the Sports Medicine Committee, COVID-19 Task Force, or Board of Directors until the week of Nov. 17 at the earliest.
The EAA guidelines created classifications of Lower, Moderate, and High Risk sports and also new health and safety protocols that each sport must follow in order for practices and competitions to be staged safely.
Only lower risk sports, such as cross-country, tennis, golf, and skiing, will be allowed to partake in tournaments, although the MIAA already has canceled postseason play for the Fall I and Winter seasons.
Moderate risk sports — including baseball, softball, crew, track and field, team swimming, volleyball, field hockey, soccer, and girls' lacrosse — can partake in competitive practices that include contact drills and scrimmages, as well as competitions.
A higher-risk sport that involves “intermittent close proximity or moderate contact” such as basketball, lacrosse, ice hockey, and ultimate frisbee, or sports that require high contact but are played outdoors, such as football and rugby, can also practice and compete with modifications.
A higher risk, high-contact sport such as wrestling and competitive cheerleading only take place indoors and thus can only practice with limitations.
Whatever modifications the basketball committee creates will not make high school basketball in Massachusetts during a pandemic unrecognizable, Rodgers said.
“I’ve heard rumors from people saying ‘They’re not going to allow you to play defense or rebound’ and for the most part those kinds of suggestions are not being considered,” Rodgers said. “Right now it’s thoughtful modifications that will limit risks of transmission and spread.”
Bob Ware, chair of the MIAA Ice Hockey subcommittee and the girls' hockey coach at Westford Academy, called the EEA guidelines “a good first step.”
Dan Shine, Arlington Catholic AD/boys' hockey coach, chair of the MIAA Ice Hockey Committee and member of the COVID-19 Task Force, sounded optimistic that reasonable modifications can be made without sacrificing hockey’s authenticity.
The EEA guidelines allow all the committees “to do their job,” Shine said.
“We’re on a great path to having a season,” Shine said. “I think the hockey subcommittee has done a phenomenal job ... how best to run this game without changing the game of hockey to something else, and run it safely.”
The wrestling community expressed disappointment.
Wrestling Committee chair and Burlington coach Paul Shvartsman hoped to compete this winter. He noted that although wrestling involves close contact, most wrestlers practice with the same drill partners and wrestle only a few different teammates in practice because of similar weights.
“I’m surprised that if you can play basketball games, why can’t you wrestle?” Shvartsman said. “When it’s wrestling it’s the Burlington 106-pounder against the Lowell 106-pounder. In basketball, it’s 18 kids touching each other, so I’d think basketball would be a little more difficult than wrestling.”.
While recognizing the reasoning behind why wrestling is deemed high-risk, “It would be a big disappointment [not to have a season],” said Al Costabile, athletic director at Shawsheen Valley Tech in Billerica, which perennially fields one of the state’s premier Division 1 programs. “It will be a big void for these kids.”
The MIAA Board of Directors, with the recommendations of the Task Force and other committees, will have the final say in the coming weeks. The board previously approved a Winter season from Nov. 30 to Feb. 21, but also agreed it could delay the start of the season if necessary.
“We’ve had some very productive conversations with a number of people,” Ware said. “Not only the subcommittee, but also outside officials who have helped reassure us of our game plan for the next steps.”
Assistant sports editor Craig Larson and correspondents Brandon Chase, Jim Clark, and Matthew Doherty also contributed.