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COVID-19 concerns put safety first before sports can begin

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent
Lake coach Dan DeGeorge says there will be a lot of adjustments to get used to if the high school football season is able to go on this year.

COLUMBUS Right now, there's no guarantee that the high school football season will happen for schools across Ohio or that teams will be able to successfully complete it should it start.

However, one certainty is that a possible season will look much different in terms of what happens on the field and the logistics of the game, based on guidelines the Ohio High School Athletic Association released, guidelines handed down by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

“The recommendations within this document for the resumption of varsity, non-varsity and seventh and eighth grade interscholastic athletic seasons and participation opportunities have been made with the health, safety and well-being of all student-athletes in mind," the OHSAA wrote in announcing health and safety protocols not just for football, but other fall sports such as cross country, field hockey, golf, soccer, tennis and volleyball.

The guidelines are aimed at keeping players, coaches and officials safe and healthy in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a situation that continues to evolve with each passing day.

"This is not an exhaustive list and there might be additional steps in each school, city, and state to help prevent the spread of virus," the OHSAA wrote in handing down the guidelines. "Even when taking all precautions, there will still be risk of transmitting illnesses. Everyone should stay vigilant about the health of members of their teams."

Some of the guidelines are simpler, such as extending the team box – the area along the sidelines where players must stand when not on the field – to the 10-yard line at each end of the field, allowing for more social distancing on the sideline.

Others pertain to balls and equipment, including cleaning and sanitizing footballs throughout the game and making sure players don't share uniforms, towels and other types of apparel and equipment.

Additionally, officials won't be spotting the football at the new line of scrimmage following each play.

"The officials will have limited contact with the ball," the new guidelines state. "The players of the offensive team will handle the ball and take it with them to the huddle. The umpire will place a bean bag at the spot where the ball will be snapped."

Having a lineman, receiver or running back tote the ball back to the huddle promises to be an odd sight, one of many that promise to change the optics of high school football going forward for as long as the pandemic continues.

Players can wear cloth face masks, but plastic shields covering a player's entire face are only allowed it integrated into their helmet. Given the expense of having such shields made an built into the structure of the helmet, it seems unlikely that most players will have them.

Lake head coach Dan DeGeorge admitted he doesn't know the exact cost of such shields and believes that if they became mandatory, the district would find a way to purchase them. However, he doesn't expect many players and parents to purchase such shields on their own.

"I'm sure they're very costly and the monetary issue and the cost there would probably be tough for a lot of athletes," DeGeorge said.

Another OHSAA guideline states that during timeouts, each player and official will have their own water or beverage container brought out to them on the field. The guidelines even govern activities before the game and at halftime, with the coin toss limited to the referee, umpire and one representative from each team, all spaced at least six feet apart and with no customary handshakes before or after the toss.

Under the NHSA's recommendations, halftime would be shortened to its minimum length of 10 minutes. Halftime is normally 20 minutes and allows for on-field performances by each school's marching band, but with the pandemic, it's highly unlikely any of those performances will take place. During the intermission, the NHSA recommends that teams remain outside their locker rooms and that their normal halftime activities take place either outdoors or in a larger space that allows for social distancing.

"That would be a huge adjustment for us if all teams had to do it, but we would find a way to make it work," DeGeorge said. "We have some boards on sidelines where we can make adjustments for kids and we can adapt and do what we need to do."

He noted that Lake, which is just a few years removed from a stadium renovation thanks to its boosters, has an advantage in terms of having more space and amenities that smaller districts in the area that don't have as much space or as many resources to space out and adjust to the new distancing guidelines.

How that will go early in the season, when games often take place in sweltering summer heat, or later in the season when cold, rain and snow can be a factor, remains to be seen.

Lastly, the guidelines state that handshakes during any pregame or postgame activities be eliminated, reducing the direct contact between players and coaches. It's worth noting the irony of suspending the practice of players shaking hands when those game players will have just spent 48 minutes face to face, tackling one another and breathing the same air as they block, defend and land in piles on top of one another, underscoring the challenges football faces that many other sports don't in the face of the pandemic.

Even in announcing the guidelines, the OHSAA concedes that they are largely written in pencil, due to be erased, revised and rewritten as the situation continues to develop.

"The situation with COVID-19 is rapidly changing," the organization wrote in unveiling the rules. "These considerations may quickly become outdated."

As all involved wait to see what comes next and teams prepare as best they can for a possible season ahead, they do so with few guarantees beyond the promise of more changes to come.

At Lake, that means players wearing masks when they show up to team activities and keeping them on in the locker room, only taking them off once they get on the field with their helmets on. Their coaches and trainers keep their masks on throughout activities, something DeGeorge conceded has taken getting used to, but a sacrifice worth making if it will help make the season possible. With the district slated to begin classes Aug. 24 and parents given the option to have their children do in-person or online classes, the veteran coach and teacher expects most of his players will be in the building, citing conversations he's had with them or with their parents and guardians in recent weeks.

Lake also will avoid schedule disruptions caused for Summit County schools, where health officials have recommended pushing back the start of fall sports until October. Federal League rival Green is the only Summit County team on Lake's schedule and the two geographic rivals typically play near the end of the season. But schedule disruptions or not, it's clear the forecast for the 2020 season for Lake – and other Suburbanite-area schools – is uncertain and subject to change.