By Lenny Sementi
As Tuscola boys and girls basketball coaches Justin Bozarth and Tim Kohlbecker squads wrapped up fall contact days last week, two weeks prior to the official start of practice, their world got turned in a few different directions. Maybe an easier way to put it would be to follow the bouncing ball. The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Board of Directors were set to meet on Wednesday and lay out their plans for the 2020-2021 season.
One day prior to that governor JB Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) jumped out in front of that meeting announcing Tuesday, October 27 that they were moving basketball out of the “medium risk” category to the “higher risk” category. The move put the high school basketball season on hold. At his press conference on the 27th the governor stated “As with sports in the fall, nothing is cancelled, just put on hold until we are through the thick of this pandemic.” In July the IHSA adopted a modified sports plan moving football and volleyball to the spring and setting winter sports seasons practices to tentatively start on November 16th with a truncated season running through February 13th.
The IDPH issued a document in response titled Science Behind Winter Sports Guidelines stating they assessed the risk for transmission of the virus associated with basketball according to the evidence based framework which found the sport to be higher risk. “Basketball is played indoors (higher risk) with frequent close contacts to other players (higher risk), which includes 10 on the court and often just as many on both benches (higher risk), a single piece of shared equipment that is difficult to clean during the game (higher risk), and an intensity level that makes masking more difficult (higher risk).”
The IHSA responded following the announcement stating, “About 15 minutes prior to Governor Pritzker’s press conference today, we were alerted that the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) has elevated the sport of basketball from a medium risk level to a high risk level. We remain considerate of the recent rise in positive COVID-19 cases in our state. However, in our meeting with IDPH on Friday (October 23), we felt that we presented multiple options that would allow for basketball to be conducted safely by IHSA schools this winter, many of which are being utilized in neighboring states who plan to play high school basketball.”
On Wednesday following their board meeting the IHSA dropped a bombshell. “After diligent discussion, the Board has made the decision to follow the recommendation of the IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee as it relates to basketball. The Board remains considerate of rising COVID-19 cases in Illinois and understands the importance of adhering to safety guidelines for the good of all citizens. However, the Board has not presented any causal evidence that rising COVID-19 cases make basketball more dangerous to play by the IDPH or any other health organization nationally or internationally. On the contrary, the IHSA has been looking to bordering states who have sponsored both medium risk and high risk sports in the fall that have noted a low incident rate of COVID-19 spread.”
The IHSA also spoke of the adverse impact of not allowing students to participate in sports and what it will have on the mental wellbeing of those involved, “We fear for the mental health of students who attempt to traverse a long winter with no athletic outlet available.”
Governor Pritzker quickly fired back at his afternoon press conference “The IHSA may have their views of it but school districts know what the rules are and it’s unfortunate, but they would probably be taking on legal liability if they moved beyond what the state has set as the mitigation standard.” And on Thursday he went even further saying, “All high school winter sports, including basketball, were being moved to the spring due to COVID-19. Stating that schools that play could face legal liability if someone gets sick.”
So where does it stand, no one is exactly sure. Right now the governor says no, the IHSA says it’s a go and both coach Bozarth and Kohlbecker are prepared for either direction the ball actually bounces. They both reached out to their teams via twitter with the same sentiment on Tuesday following the first announcement from the governor. Stay positive and control what we can control effort and attitude, keep working hard and see what the future holds.
Both were asked their thoughts following the IHSA announcement. Coach Kohlbecker was quoted as saying, “I was pleasantly surprised but my hopes are tempered knowing there are still hurdles to clear before we are allowed to play. I intend to prepare the kids as I would any other season, while hoping for the best. The girls have been outstanding this past month during our contact days and I’ve seen definite skill improvements in a number of players.”
Bozarth followed saying, “We were very shocked by the decision of the IHSA. I had not anticipated them making the decision that they did. As cliche as it sounds, we’ve continued to focus on what we can control: preparing for a season and safely following the guidelines provided. Our kids have been doing basketball training in masks since June. So many decisions will be coming out over the next couple weeks that are completely out of the control of our coaches and kids. We’re optimistic that a season can be safely played.”
Two seniors one weighed in as well. Kohlbeckers point guard Brynn Tabeling said, “I was very excited to hear that we could possibly have a chance to play this year. With everything that has happened, I’m glad that there was finally some good news. Honestly being a senior during this time is hard and it’ll be a time that I’ll never forget, but I am glad that I’m at least able to still do many things.”
One of Bozarth’s leaders Ben Teizzi commented, “I am grateful that the IHSA decided to overturn the state’s decision and allow each individual school district to make their own decision. We all understand the potential danger of COVID-19 but I know that we can all take the appropriate precautions. It is definitely tough being a senior and knowing that we may not be able to play our senior season. I’m hopeful that our district and others around us will let us have a season and let us play the sport that many kids love.”