By Lenny Sementi
In the old days, when you were a kid in the city you played ball in the street. It was game on when there were no cars and game off when one was coming your way. That’s how high school sports have been in Illinois since March as the Illinois Public Health Department and the IHSA have tried to navigate the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Since last March high school sports have been on an emotional roller coaster but this past Friday Governor JB Pritzker and the Illinois Public Health Department did an about face on scholastic athletics. When it truly looked like high-risk sports like basketball and football would be cancelled there was an abrupt about face by the forces in charge.
Director of the IDPH Dr. Ngozi Ezike and the governor’s office stated in a press conference during the noon hour on Friday regions in Illinois that reach Phase 4 of COVID mitigations can play high school sports. Including those categorized high-risk basketball and football. Game on!
The IHSA followed about a half hour later stating the governor and the IDPH announced new all sports policy guidelines. And that they would post social media links when that information is posted, and provide guidance as soon as they could on what the changes mean to IHSA schools. Later in the day they followed with an announcement that final schedules for all sports, even those in season would not be released until after their scheduled monthly meeting this Wednesday, January 27..
Craig Anderson followed with an email to schools relaying the good news stating, “The most significant update today involves high-risk sports in Regions that have improved from Tier 1 to Phase 4. Schools within a Phase 4 Region can now conduct intra-conference and intra-region contests in high-risk sports. Moderate-risk sports competing outdoors in Phase 4 also received expanded scheduling opportunities, including tournaments and out-of-state contests.”
Boys basketball coach Justin Bozarth and girls coach Tim Kohlbecker will hit the floor running and must get in 12 acclimation practices prior to their first game. Masks must be worn during practice and competition and social distancing should be adhered to for bench players and game personnel.
Warrior coaches responded with excitement for their athletes and a little trepidation. Bozarth stated, “Whether we get to play five game or twenty games, I’m just excited for our kids to get back onto the court and compete. Thrilled that our seniors have an opportunity to put their basketball jerseys on a few more times.”
Football coach Andy Romine echoed that of Bozarth. “I’m excited for our kid and our community. I hope this is a lasting change, and not one that toils with the kids emotions of going back and forth. It is going on eleven months of suspected high and lows of not competing.”
Beth Pugh, the longest tenured coach in the district and East Prairie’s Athletic Director received the same news from the IESA and followed it up with this comment. “All of our teachers and coaches in the building are extremely happy that kids are going to get to play. Junior High students have a lot of energy and having to keep this energy contained for months was hard on them, their parents and teachers. Kids this age need to be active and social. Extracurricular Activities help to keep the students healthy both physically and mentally. The seasons will be different than they normally are, but we will work with what is given to us. Kids can and will adapt to the change. We are glad to be given the chance to make it work.”
High school athletic director Ryan Hornaday who will be re-shuffling the schedules once again weighed in as well. “It’s great news and absolute madness all at the same time. Everyone (me included) is excited we get to play. But… who will we play, when will we play, where will we play, what officials will be available? It’s such a dramatic change from normal operations, I’m used to planning events a year or two in advance, not days in advance. We’ve got a tough balance to sort out. We want to be competitive, but ensure we don’t overdo it. We want to go “full throttle” but we need to move forward in a calculated manner. At the end of the day, I’m ecstatic for our student athlete and that’s what matters.”