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Local schools will attempt autumn sports seasons

The sound of football pads smacking together on fall Friday nights and whistles blowing in gymnasiums during volleyball games will apparently be heard locally in the near future as area schools continue forward with plans for abbreviated seasons. If they can keep COVID-19 out of locker rooms as they practice and compete against other schools, athletes may be able to make it through a revamped season that will not see any state champions crowned.

Loyal, Spencer and Greenwood are all planning to play football and volleyball and send cross country teams to the course in the next few weeks. Per Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) guidelines, cross country practices have already started, while volleyball and football practices can begin on Sept. 7. Game schedules are still being worked out, and schools have yet to decide if they’ll allow spectators at games.

Spencer High School principal and football coach Jason Gorst said his school is moving “cautiously” ahead with plans for all sports. All schools were given a Sept. 1 deadline to let the WIAA know if they planned to compete in fall, or choose an alternate spring season. With other schools in the conferences in which they play choosing fall seasons, Gorst said Spencer decided to go along.

“Conferences are trying to stick together and made the decision to go,” he said. “If you go to spring, you won’t have anybody to play.”

The Rocket cross country team had been working out virtually for the first allowable week of practice, then began regular workouts on Monday. That is a sport that’s done outside and distancing is easy, so there is not as large of a concern with COVID spread.

“The big thing with them is trying to reduce the number of teams at meets,” Gorst said.

Loyal district administrator and football coach Chris Lindner said the Greyhound cross country team that co-ops with Greenwood also began training on Monday. It normally hosts one of the season’s first meets, and will do so again this year on Sept. 1, but instead of the 11 teams it usually invites, that number will be trimmed to just five. Some meets that were usually held on weekdays may be moved to Saturdays this fall. That will allow meet organizers to use staggered starts in which teams would be started on the course at intervals rather than all released at once.

Lindner said cross country will be the easiest sport to manage.

“They’re outside and socially distanced. If they come together, they need to mask,” he said.

As for volleyball, practices can begin on Sept. 7, but questions linger on how exactly things will look. Lindner said Loyal expects to have 27 girls in grades 9-12 out for the sport, and that will make for a crowded gym.

Masking issues are still being worked out for volleyball. Lindner said the WIAA is supposed to be issuing a ruling on whether or not players will have to wear masks on the court during play, or if they will only be required to don one when they come to the bench.

Another major volleyball question is spectators. While neither Clark nor Marathon county has issued any crowd gathering size limit (Eau Claire County has), schools aren’t sure they want to fill gyms with fans. Lindner said one thing that has been worked out between Cloverbelt Conference schools is that they will follow the same rule. “No decision has been made yet for conference,” he said. “We decided as a conference we would keep it the same.”

Gorst said Spencer is exploring options to live-stream volleyball games. He also said extra precautions such as frequent disinfecting of volleyballs will be taken.

And then there is football, the one sport in fall that features direct contact between athletes. Plus, as Gorst noted, there are more kids involved, with the Spencer-Columbus co-op squad expecting about 60 players. Keeping those players apart may prove difficult.

“How do you get ready for a football practice without a locker room?” Gorst said.

The WIAA plan says practices can begin on Sept. 7, and first games can be played on Sept. 24-25. Gorst said Spencer is planning for its first game on Sept. 25 against Nekoosa, which had been scheduled as its fourth game of the year. It will then plays its planned next three games against Manawa, Stratford and Shiocton, and then what would have been its first three league games. It will play seven league games in all, with that leaving two weeks for a possible regional playoff. The season will end in mid-November on what would normally be the weekend of the third round of the state playoffs.

Spencer-Columbus was already expecting an unusual season, its first in the revamped Central Wisconsin-Large Conference. It will have almost all new opponents this year, and more travel time than when it played in the former Cloverbelt Conference.

Gorst said football games and spectator rules could change as the season goes. Some counties have a crowd gathering limit of 100 people, and that would almost make a game impossible.

“At a football game, you’re gonna’ get to a hundred in a hurry,” he said.

Spectator options could include a maximum cap on a crowd, allowing a limit of a few people for each player, or games played in front of empty stands.

Travel will be another factor. Cramming 60 players onto a bus would be a great way to spread coronavirus. The school may decide to take players in multiple smaller vehicles.

At practice, there will be safety measures such as coaches wearing masks and using electronic whistles, players wearing a protective device over their facemasks, and extra sanitation.

Coaches will make efforts to keep units apart at practices. During games, although players from opposing schools will be in direct contact, Gorst said the actual time is limited to a few seconds per play. The standard for quarantining someone who has been exposed is whether they have been within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes, and Gorst said, “You can actually play a football game without crossing that barrier with your opponent.”

Lindner said Loyal’s football team will play in a Sept. 18 scrimmage, with its first game also on Sept. 25. Schedules and other considerations have yet to be worked out at a meeting of conference coaches. That will include the issue of spectators.

Lindner said Loyal considered taking the spring option for its usual fall sports, but decided to stick with its conference schools.

“When the conference said, ‘Let’s go fall,” we felt we’d have people to play then,” he said. “There was a lot of thought about going in the spring.”

Lindner noted that WIAA rules will allow a school to still opt for a spring season, if it cannot play at least half of its fall schedule due to a COVID outbreak or school closure.

Gorst said, too, that everything is tentative, and dependent on players and coaches staying healthy.

“Obviously, if we have any kind of safety concern, we’ll shut it down and move it to spring,” he said.

For now, though, Gorst said the decision to try a fall season was made for partly the same reason as the decision to have students return for face-to-face instruction next week. The students need to get back to normalcy, he said, and have things to look forward to.

“The mental health of students is definitely something that weighs into the equation here,” Gorst said.

“The mental health of students is definitely something that weighs into the equation here,” -- Spencer principal/ football coach Jason Gorst