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High school fall sports start date delayed

Fall championships are canceled

Lake Placid's Lydia Bullock eyes the ball as she makes a break toward the AuSable Valley net in the semifinal loss to the Patriots in Saranac in October 2018. (News photo — Justin A. Levine)

Back in March, the coronavirus robbed New York’s winter high school student-athletes of the chance to compete for championships, after most of them had already completed their regular seasons. Shortly after, spring sports seasons were canceled in their entirety.

On Thursday, July 16, the upcoming fall season received its first of what may be more setbacks to come, as the New York State Public High School Athletic Association announced that all state and regional championships will not take place for fall sports.

Although teams across New York will not compete for any state titles in 2020, fall sports have not been ruled out completely on a regional level. If they can’t take place this fall, the NYSPHSAA has developed a contingency plan that may have competitions for the 2020 fall season take place in a condensed manner during the spring.

The NYSPHAA pushed back the start of fall sports preseason practices statewide from their usual time in late August to Sept. 21 at the earliest. Aug. 24 had been when games were supposed to begin.

Russ Bartlett, the new superintendent of the Tupper Lake Central School District, is also one of NYSPHSAA’s four executive officers. He is currently the second vice president of the association that governs how public high school sports operate across New York and will move into the first vice president role on July 28.

He said tough decisions had to be made regarding athletics, but that they play a secondary role to the ultimate priority of getting students back safely in classrooms.

“Postponing the start of the fall season gives us time to get back into schools initially, and we’re all hopeful that we can do that safely and it won’t start an outbreak,” Bartlett said. “By Sept. 21, after the kids have been back in school for two, three weeks, hopefully by then we might be able to see some type of fall sports take place.”

Bartlett said what happens regarding high school athletics will ultimately be determined by rules and guidelines laid out by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Department of Health.

Bartlett has also been the director of athletics at Tupper Lake as well as a longtime girls varsity soccer coach.

He added that Pennsylvania’s association that runs public high school athletics has already canceled all fall sports.

Perhaps some of the local student-athletes who may be feeling the most pain from the July 16 announcement are members of the Saranac Lake boys cross country team. Last November, these Red Storm runners claimed their second Class C state title in a row, and with all members coming back this fall, they were gearing up for a possible three-peat.

Head coach Bill Peer said he was going to discuss the decision with his athletes the evening of July 16 in a virtual conference.

“I’ve had better days,” he said late Thursday afternoon. “This could have been a special year for sure, and I feel really bad for our kids. For us, it’s now about trying to figure out what we are going to be able to do. The kids are still training. They’re running. They have workouts. We’ve developed a 20-week plan, and they’re still sticking to it.”

Peer added that the boys have the potential to compete in cross country at the collegiate level, and getting them there is a goal that has a little more meaning now that a third state title has been eliminated from the picture.

“Our goals have always been win CVAC (Champlain Valley Athletic Conference) first, win the Section VII title if were afforded the chance, get to the state meet,” Peer said. “Right now, we still have some of those options open. We’ll just have to see what happens.”

“I think it makes total sense that they canceled the state championships,” said Eric Bennett, the director of athletics for the Saranac Lake Central School District and the Red Storm’s varsity football coach. “It was a decision waiting to happen, and now they ripped the Band-Aid off and it’s not just going to happen. I just hope cases stay small and we’re able to have a fall season.”

Tupper Lake Director of Athletics Dan Brown said 117 student-athletes had expressed interest in competing on the Lumberjacks’ fall teams, and he agreed that the first step is having kids return to schools safely before worrying about sports.

“I think it’s good that the decision has been made,” Brown said. “What’s really saddened me is that since I was 7 years old, there have always been sports seasons in the fall, winter and spring, and it’s now somewhat up in the air. It’s better to err on the side of caution. We don’t even know what it’s going to be like introducing kids back into education. Safety is always going to be No. 1.”

This decision comes at the recommendation of the NYSPHSAA COVID-19 Task Force, which convened for the third time on July 16. It was influenced by Health Department guidance issued July 13 that prohibits interscholastic athletics across the state, according to NYSPHSAA Executive Director Robert Zayas.

“Right now, we have to be aware that school districts are struggling to come up with a plan to incorporate an academic setting for student-athletes, so that’s a big reason why we hit the pause button today,” Zayas said in a July 16 press conference via Zoom.

NYSPHSAA is preparing to implement a condensed season schedule, beginning in January, if high school sports remain prohibited throughout 2020. The condensed plan would entail the following three 10-week seasons, with tentative dates: Season 1 (winter sports), Jan. 4 to March 13; Season 2 (fall sports), March 1 to May 8; and Season 3: (spring sports), April 5 to June 12.

Since seasons 2 and 3 overlap, it will be up to school districts to decide whether and when students can compete in sports in both seasons at the same time, according to Zayas.

Asked what regional and state championships would look like in a condensed season, if at all possible, Zayas said it is too early to tell.

Of the 562,000 student-athletes who participate annually within NYSPHSAA member schools, 198,000 participate in fall sports.

“We can’t be cavalier about athletics,” said Section VII Executive Director Matt Walentuk. “The scholastic aspect comes first.

“Right now, clubs and youth leagues can still do their thing, and I think that’s great,” he added. “When we’re given the guidance and if we’re given the go-ahead, we have to think as creatively as possible and not be stuck in, ‘This is the way we’ve always done things.’ It’s going to be different.”