CUMBERLAND — Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon and Gov. Larry Hogan announced a new two-semester fall sports plan Thursday, allowing schools to play games as early as Oct. 27.
The surprise decision comes on the heels of Hogan visiting Frederick County schools Waverly Elementary School and the Frederick County Career & Technology Center, who have both implemented in-person learning.
“Getting our kids back on the playing field and allowing youth sports to resume this fall is critical for the social and mental well-being of our students,” Hogan said via press release. “Now that all 24 jurisdictions have submitted plans to resume in-person instruction, allowing fall sports to begin next month marks another important step on our road to recovery.”
The new plan allows for practices to begin on Oct. 7, with the first official competition date on the 27th (golf matches can start on Oct. 7). The seven-week season concludes on Dec. 12, followed by some sort of culminating game between Dec. 14-19.
Winter sports teams would start practicing on Dec. 14, and the first possible competition date is Jan. 4. The state allows for an eight-week season, followed by a two-week period for tournament play. The spring season will be nine weeks long starting on April 5, the first gameday.
School systems could still opt to go with the one-semester proposal. The winter sports season would kick off first on Feb. 1, and the five-week competition window would begin on Feb. 22. Fall sports would follow in March and end in May when the spring season would start.
By cramming all three seasons into the second semester, there would be no postseason play, and the regular seasons would all last five weeks.
Local coaches and administrations are understandably excited about the possibility of having fall sports in October.
“The plan that was announced today is definitely a better plan than trying to do everything in the spring,” Allegany Athletic Director Tedd Eirich said. “The student-athletes will be able to play more games with this plan. I know the coaches are anxious to get back to work with their players. I’m very hopeful that this will be approved by the (Allegany County) BOE.”
Twenty-four hours ago, the prospects of playing in the fall seemed doomed. Now, schools have to scramble to see how feasible playing next month really is.
“I’m shocked,” Mountain Ridge head football coach Ryan Patterson said, “and I’m also torn. Obviously we want to play football. Logistically we’re going to struggle. We went from not being able to have a ball to live and in color, it’s a quick turnaround.
“Glad we’re going in the right direction. It looks safer right now as far as the numbers are concerned, but it’s going to be a scramble.”
Fort Hill Athletic Director Amber Waltz and boys soccer head coach Jim Hott along with Northern cross country head coach Jaron Hawkins declined to comment on Hogan’s announcement before their respective school boards submit and approve a plan.
One of those organizational queries Patterson alluded to relates to scheduling. For football, with seven weeks and just five teams in Allegany and Garrett Counties, how will the other three weeks be filled?
There is a possibility Washington County schools could be brought on. But the county has seven schools, so those football teams could nearly populate their schedules without leaving the county’s border. Area teams may be forced to play one or more repeat matchups.
Scheduling for cross country, golf, soccer and volleyball should be easier because teams can play more than one contest a week. It’s unclear at this time whether Maryland schools will be permitted to compete out of state.
Some kids from area teams are also involved in local youth leagues, which they have been participating in under the assumption athletics wouldn’t return in the near future, Patterson said. If high school athletics does return next month, that could pose another conflict.
And then there’s the question of how and if in-person learning will be implemented? And what happens if there is a positive COVID test in a school? And will fans be permitted to attend games, and if so, how many?
Garrett County Public Schools updated its reopening plan on Tuesday morning, which tentatively called for students to return in three phases.
The first phase would have returned ninth and 12th graders in cohorts starting on Oct. 12, 10th graders beginning on Oct. 26 and all others starting on Nov. 9. But with practices permitted to begin on Oct. 7 and competition on the 27th, that plan will likely need to be updated.
Southern Athletic Director Matt Redinger said GCPS has a leg up because it has a plan to go off of from the spring season, when it was one of the first county’s to allow kids to get back to practice. Baseball, tennis and softball came together for workouts and intrasquad scrimmages started on Sept. 14, before the state shut everything down for good on Aug. 3.
That roadmap, along with early efforts to get kids back in the classroom, could make the transition easier for the county to get back to competition in the fall.
“I’m happy for the kids and their parents, who can get back to some normalcy,” Redinger said. “We had a plan and that changed, and then another and that changed. We’re on the third attempt, but we’re excited to get back to normal.”
Redinger is hopeful Washington County will hop on board to play Southern in football, but he’s open to playing local teams twice if it’s the best thing for the student-athletes.
“We’re going to be open to what’s conducive to get the kids an opportunity to play,” he said. “It’s safe to say both us and Northern will play twice in football no matter what, whether we go with the one- or two-semester plan. It will give people the opportunity to see us play on both of our new fields.”
Now it’s just up to the school boards to decide whether the one-semeser plan, beginning in 2021, or a two-semester one starting up next month is better for students, and then implement it. With the proposed date to start practicing just weeks away, the clock is ticking.
Alex Rychwalski is a sportswriter for the Cumberland Times-News. Follow him on Twitter @arychwal.