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High school sports are uncertain for fall, and the clock is ticking - The Washington Post

Coach DaLawn Parrish and the Wise Pumas are waiting for the green light to begin football activities. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

By Michael Errigo and

Michael Errigo

Reporter covering high school sports.

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Jake Lourim

Jake Lourim

Reporter covering high school sports

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July 2 at 9:00 AM

Around noon on the final Thursday of June, the football program from Falls Church High was broken up into four small groups across two turf fields, a distance of about 40 yards between them.

Each pack of players had one coach with it, and he wore a mask at all times. There were no footballs or any other significant equipment. Trying to stay distanced as much as they could, the players ran through conditioning drills.

Earlier, when they arrived for the second workout ahead of an unconventional and uncertain football season, each player took his own temperature.

“We’re just going to go two days a week until we get some progress,” Coach Said Aziz said after coming off the field. “There’s no reason to bring these kids out every single day not knowing what’s going to happen.”

About a month before fall practices typically start, this is how high school sports are tentatively, carefully trying to gear up. As government and school officials sort through academic options, fall sports — which in this area include football, soccer, field hockey, cross-country, tennis, volleyball and golf — hang in the balance.

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In Virginia and Maryland, football practices are scheduled to begin July 30 and Aug. 12, respectively. The D.C. State Athletic Association had not set a practice date before stay-at-home orders began in the spring, but last year it opened Aug. 1. Most schools have games scheduled for the weekend of Aug. 28.

Those dates seem to be in jeopardy as the country continues to grapple with the novel coronavirus pandemic. And officials who run high school sports organizations are still waiting and hoping for a clearer picture.

Aaron Brady, the football coach at St. Mary’s Ryken, said his team scheduled its first practice for Aug. 6. But he doesn’t expect to start on time, especially considering football, with so much contact among players, is among the highest-risk sports according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

“I want to play, but honestly I don’t feel good,” Wise football coach DaLawn Parrish said. “We’re right now entering July and we haven’t got what we’re going to do with school yet. And football starts mid-August? I don’t feel good.”

‘No way that was going to happen’

The uncertainty of the coronavirus demands caution, but time is becoming a factor. The Virginia High School League waited and watched public health trends for months until the executive board hoped its special meeting June 25 might finally produce clarity. Athletic directors told coaches to circle that date; by then, they thought, everyone might have answers.

But June 25 came and went, and the VHSL board decided the fluid situation warranted more waiting.

“I know that there are a lot of people that were hoping that we were going to come out of this meeting and say, ‘Okay, here’s what happens in the fall, and here’s when it starts, and here’s how many games they’re going to play, and here’s how it’s going to go,’ ” VHSL Executive Director Billy Haun said after the meeting. “There are a lot of people that really would have liked for that to happen, but there was no way that that was going to happen today.”

The pandemic has punished those who prematurely rush back to activities, and as cases surge elsewhere in the country, three VHSL board members who spoke after the meeting repeated the word “patience.”

“I think everybody there is a little disappointed that we don’t have a hard-and-fast date,” Westfield Athletic Director Terri Towle said. “But I don’t think anybody’s shocked by that, either.”

Maryland is in a similar situation: The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association said its decision-making process is ongoing, and its education recovery plan emphasizes the importance of looking at school systems individually.

In the District, a recent call among members of the DCSAA featured talk of three options for fall sports: a traditional start date, an October start date with condensed seasons, and a nontraditional calendar that would feature sports starting in December or January. The third option, favored by the group, would mean the athletic calendar would begin with the winter season, followed by fall sports and then spring. Each season would last roughly eight weeks.

“Our thought in that process is that, by the time we get to December, there will be enough science and data to support us playing or not,” DCSAA Executive Director Clark Ray said.

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Area private schools are also in flux because they lack an overarching governing body such as the VHSL, which works with the state’s department of education and public health commission. Several of the most prominent independent leagues — the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, the Interstate Athletic Conference, the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference and the Independent School League — each have at least one team in the District, Maryland and Virginia. They could break with guidance from government officials, but so far they have not.

Cross-country is one of two fall sports considered low-risk. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

‘We just need some clarity’

By even having a workout in late June, Aziz’s Falls Church program was one of the more active groups in the area. Fairfax County had given the Jaguars a go-ahead to start meeting, but many other coaches are still waiting for that green light.

In Prince George’s County, Parrish has not been able to contact his players about anything football-related since school let out. That means no workouts, no video conferences and no virtual strategizing. Whenever football returns, the longtime coach knows this idle time will take a toll.

“We just need some clarity on the timeline,” he said. “There’s some people that still look at football as a sport that you can just pick up and play tomorrow. They don’t really understand what goes into getting the body in shape, the rules and stuff like that.”

While the football season needs a longer ramp-up period, lower-risk sports may not face as difficult of a transition. For Severna Park cross-country coach Josh Alcombright, the offseason has gone off without a hitch because of the individual nature of the sport. He has been able to touch base with his athletes often and feels confident their running regimens haven’t been halted.

“We’ve designed opportunities for them to compete against themselves or against their teammates virtually,” he said. “We really haven’t missed a beat at all.”

Stone Bridge volleyball coach Jill Raschiatore said that while she is waiting for Loudoun County to allow distanced workouts, many of her athletes are working out with club teams or private trainers.

“I think the majority of mine have been very active and staying in shape, and some of them have even been playing some serious volleyball, so I’m not so worried that we need to get together and do a few sprints or do a little conditioning thing,” she said. “I’m absolutely glad they’re getting some work and they’re not being couch potatoes, but it is a little frustrating.”

Much of the frustration for high school coaches is that they must operate under different guidelines than private coaches, who can follow more casual public regulations.

“You can get on Twitter and see groups of kids out there on a field with a trainer, working out with no masks, while they’re telling the high school coaches you can’t be around the kids,” Parrish said. “At least if you put me around them I can govern with the rules that you want me to. I can at least wear the mask.”

The Calvert girls' soccer team is looking to defend its Maryland 2A title this fall. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)

‘As long as I get to play’

For the most part, players have been constrained to what’s available in and around their homes. Curtis Nixon, a rising senior tight end at Maret, said he lifts weights, works out with cones in his backyard and goes for runs through his neighborhood.

Perhaps as fall nears, concerns about returning to the field will become more pressing. But for now, many players are ready to start.

“We’re really just eager to play and show what we’re about,” said Nixon, whose team won the DCSAA Class A title last season. “We believe that there will be a season, even if it doesn’t start on time. We think it may start a little bit later, but we’re just hoping that we can play some games this year.”

Calvert soccer midfielder Bridget Harris has also been training at home, occasionally meeting up with a few friends for drills. A few weeks ago, her club team started modified practices.

She hopes her high school program will soon do the same. The Cavaliers will be defending the Maryland 2A title with a young team, and Harris has long looked forward to being a senior leader. She wants a season any way she can get it.

“For me, as long as I get to play with my team and have one last season, that’s all that matters,” Harris said. “Doesn’t really matter when that is. As long as I get to play.”

After months of independent training, Harris and her fellow rising seniors have tried to organize some kind of team workout. She wasn’t sure what that would look like but said the group feels it’s time to begin doing something — anything — in preparation for the season.