FOOTBALL: A SEASON OF CHANGE
By BRANDON HURLEY
The drama of the typical playoff field reveal will have a little less zest this fall.
Everyone is in, the state says, which should be a welcome sigh of relief for many as we prepare for a season unlike any other.
The first step toward a fall of somewhat normalcy, whatever that may be moving forward, was cautiously taken last week as the Iowa High School Athletic Association presented a number of schedule revisions in reference to the 2020 football season.
The most striking change that came July 24, in an effort to help plan for any Coronavirus team quarantines or forfeits, was a move to an all-encompassing playoff field. Each team in the five classes throughout the state will automatically qualify for the postseason. The state had previously used a 16-team bracket for the past several seasons. The nine, Class 2A district champions were awarded automatic spots while seven other schools secured at-large bids. Teams won’t have to sit around refreshing their browsers this fall, they know they’ll make it to the postseason regardless of record. The regular season has been altered as well. The IHSAA instituted a maximum, seven week schedule, with required district games and optional, non-district dates. The season is still on time to start the week of Aug. 28, as well.
Even amidst these changes that seem to tighten the regular season but lengthen the postseason, there are many questions left unanswered. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, Greene County activities director Todd Gordon said.
“They are trying to shorten the schedule, but everyone is still going to play eight games,” Gordon said Monday after taking a few days to process the state’s decision. “There was really no explanation except they are shortening the season. There was no scientific reason.”
Iowa’s high school sports were shuttered back in the spring when the spread of COVID-19 really took charge, cancelling all track and field, soccer, golf and tennis activities. After a nearly three-month hiatus without live competitions or even practices, both the IHSAA and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union decided to give baseball and softball a try, becoming the first state in the U.S. to return to high school sports. The entities developed a one-month regular season starting June 15. Only a handful of schools had to cancel their seasons while no athletes, of record, suffered life-threatening side affects. Both state tournaments were in progress this week.
Gordon remains optimistic the IHSAA will come out with further guidance on how to move closer to actual fall competitions, but what that will look like is unclear. Will players wear masks on the sidelines? Will coaches and referees be required to don the special face coverings? Those answers weren’t available as of Wednesday, July 29. Despite those curiosities, logistical problems remain in place as well. The new schedule and playoff qualifiers almost negate the point of district groupings.
“Basically, you’re kind of cutting down your preseason games to get to district play,” Gordon said. “But in the same token, district play doesn’t matter. You can have a district champion, obviously, but the RPI (to determine playoff qualifiers) is gone. So like I said, there’s more questions than answers. I’m not sure why they went to seven weeks, I really don’t know.”
The seven week schedule will consist of five district games and two, optional non-district games starting Aug. 28. All teams in Class 2A will qualify for the playoffs - which begin Oct. 16 - whether they decide to play seven, six or five contests. The playoff system makes up for the possibility of teams missing a few games here and there due to possible positive tests. The IHSAA did not want to punish quality teams for abiding by precautions.
Greene County chose to stick with their visit to Perry as its season opener and first non-district game on Aug. 28 while the Rams will host South Central Calhoun the following week, Sept. 4 in their home-opener and final non-district game. The rest of the Class 2A, District 9 schedule remains intact, while GCHS did lose non-district foes Kuemper Catholic and Southeast Valley.
The revised schedule came together pretty easily, Gordon said.
“We knew we’d have the five district games and it worked out that we had an away game week one and a road game week two, so we were able to just keep those the same,” Gordon said. “Our schedule was basically done in four or five minutes. So it was really a pretty process for us.”
District play was set to begin in week five, but has been bumped up to week three. The IHSAA is allowing teams to choose whether or not they want to play two non-district games, which may leave records looking a little funky.
The playoffs begin with a 64-team bracket. District champions, theoretically would receive the best seeds and automatic, first round home games. The state semifinals remain the same, held Nov. 12-14 in Cedar Falls while the state championships will go on as planned the following week in the UNI Dome. The 64-team field is a one-time revision, the IHSAA said, and they plan to return to some form of the 16-team bracket in the future.
Teams who must sit out a game or two due to positive Coronavirus tests will not be penalized. Instead, the game will go down as a “no-contest” instead of a forfeit, hence why the state has decided to allow an all-encompassing playoff system similar to other team sports.
While Greene County awaits further recommendations and guidance, their athletes will proceed with the safety measures already in place, locally. Ram students log their health conditions into an app each and everyday before attending practice. They answer a set of questions – which determines if they are experiencing any COVID-19 related symptoms – such as a cough, sore throat, vomiting, fever, loss of taste or smell. The coaches and GCHS athletic administrators all have wireless thermometers they scan players with each day. The coaches then are able to monitor the athletes questionnaires within the app, not only decreasing the possible spread of a virus but also streamlining the entire process. The pre-practice ritual is something Gordon expects to become part of the norm.
“It’s quick and easy,” he said. “Our kids have gotten used to it. I think it’s going o be part of their routine for the foreseeable future.”
The National Federation of High Schools, in a Zoom meeting Monday, recommended schools phase in football as part of a three-tiered approach across a month and a half schedule. The first phase, which Greene County’s athletes have been in since early July, encourages strictly strength and conditioning exercises. NFHS executive director Karissa Niehoff believes most athletes may be out of shape without the rigors of off-season training due to the threat of COVID-19, which means throwing kids directly into high-level competitions is unsafe. The second phase would include use of tackling dummies and light body-to-body contact. Phase three, likely a month into the process, would allow for full-field contact with pads, ramping up to scrimmaging. This is how Niehoff said football must operate if the athletes want to take the field come the fall.
“It looks like absolute phasing in,” she said. “Our kids have not been as physically active as they have been in the past. We are concerned about physical conditioning and getting a handle on COVID exposure and testing.”
Safety is the number one concern, Niehoff said when returning to contact sports. The NFHS and Niehoff specifically, have kept close tabs on the Coronavirus outbreak. If that means waiting a few weeks until things clear up, then she’ll encourage states and schools to take the extra precaution.
“I watch the news. We listen and watch the numbers. I encourage paying close attention to the rate of positivity, the positivity percentage,” she said. “It’s great if testing goes up but if you are looking at 1 in 10 (positives) versus 1 in 100, we need to look at whether or not we have the appropriate measures in place to bring kids back. If it means we push it back a few weeks and wait, then we will do it.”
Fall practices for football, volleyball and cross country begin on Aug. 10. The Ram football team will open the season Aug. 28 against Perry. The volleyball and cross country seasons, both for boys and girls, are going on as planned, Gordon said. He’s received no guidance from the state nor have any recommendations been released on how to keep kids safe in those sports.
In a sense, schools across the state can proceed with fall practices, but they remain in a holding pattern as far as safety precautions are concerned. Gordon said he plans to have his athletes wear face masks on the sidelines, but that may change if the IHSAA comes out with something different. Greene County is more than willing to adhere to new rules and regulations if it means they get to take to suit up.
“There’ll be a lot of prognosticators that will have all the answers and who knows who’s right and who’s wrong,” Gordon said. “This is all new. I think the biggest thing we can do is just give people some grace and just, again, be happy that we have the opportunity to play. With baseball and softball, I’m thankful that our kids got to play and they got to finish the season.
We all want to be competitive and we all want to do it to the best we can. But if we have to do some things as players, coaches and as fans to make sure we can continue to play, that’ll be what we’ll be called to do.”
In the meantime, Greene County and others across Iowa are unsure whether only the person who tests positive must quarantine or if the entire team must enter isolation. Those parameters, and for how long they must shelter-in place, are something the state must provide guidance on.
“If we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, like wearing masks on the sidelines, or in practice and somebody gets the virus, can we just shut that one person down instead of the whole team?” Gordon asked. “Right now, if we get to the playoffs and somebody tests positive, they shut down the team and the other team gets a bye.”
So many questions, so little time.
Until then, the Rams are proceeding with caution, taking aim at the Aug. 10 start date, gearing up for an unusual football season.
Greene County’s revised schedule
* Home games in bold
* Non-district games in italics
Aug. 28 - at Perry
Sept. 4 - South Central Calhoun
Sept. 11 - Atlantic
Sept. 18 - Des Moines Christian
Sept. 25 - at Red Oak
Oct. 2 - Clarinda
Oct. 9 - at Shenandoah
Oct. 16 - Playoffs (64 teams, first round)
Oct. 23 - Playoffs (32 teams, second round)
Oct. 30 - Playoffs (16 teams, third round)
Nov. 6 - Quarterfinals (8 teams)
Nov. 12-14 - State Semifinals (Cedar Falls)
Nov. 19-20 - State Championship (Cedar Falls)