High school football teams in Colorado have been given permission to play this fall during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, they must decide if they want to.
That’s likely an easy decision amongst the majority of coaches and players, but school districts and local health agencies still have plenty to discuss before allowing players to return to practice Sept. 24 with games to begin Oct. 8. A decision must be made by Monday. Locally, Bayfield, Ignacio and the 8-man teams of Dove Creek and Mancos have already declared intent to play this fall.
“There is some risk here that it could cross cohorts and that there is some jeopardy on the education side of our house, but our safety measures are working,” said Bayfield School District Superintendent Dr. K. Kevin Aten. “We feel like, at this time, we could go ahead with the playing of football in the A season. It’s hard to look into a crystal ball and know if spring will be better. I got a sense speaking with all the superintendents that many schools want and desire to play this fall. From a football participation standpoint, the structure of the fall is going to be better than to have stressed out athletes playing in back to back to back seasons that are really compacted in the spring. If they can participate in football now, it will allow more athletes to participate in other sports later.
“It’s going to be an interesting opportunity to put our safety measures to the test.”
Durango High School, Dolores and Montezuma-Cortez have yet to make an official announcement regarding if they will play a fall or spring season.
“We are seeking guidance through San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) to make the best possible decision right now,” said Durango School District 9-R Athletic Director Ryan Knorr, who said a decision from Durango 9-R could be made as soon as Thursday afternoon. “We have to take it all into consideration before we declare. We are taking advantage of an opportunity that our kids have been presented to participate in athletics. We’ve done it successfully so far with four other sports and been fairly lucky with the safe guards in place to minimize any of our teams getting quarantined so far. But, I think it all still needs to be considered from all angles before we dive in.”
Conversations began through school districts around Colorado on Thursday morning. Wednesday night, the Colorado High School Activities Association was given approval from Gov. Jared Polis on variances to public health guidelines to allow football, women’s field hockey and spirit teams to begin fall seasons. Football previously had been suspended until the spring in a decision made Aug. 4 by CHSAA after it was not given those same variances from the governor’s office and the COVID-19 response team. Only cross-country, boys golf and tennis and softball and previously been approved for fall play.
The key variance will allow teams to have 50 players and coaches per roster for a max of 100 players and coaches on the field. Previous guidelines limited athletic activities to only 25 total players on one field at a time.
“We have worked closely with CHSAA to approve their request, issue guidelines and assist in creating a process that supports a return to football, field hockey and cheer,” Polis said in a news release. “If the CHSAA board decides to add these sports to their fall calendars, it will be up to local school districts, administrators and parents to choose what is right for their communities. The state has approved these requests in order to empower all schools to make the choice that is right for them and their student athletes.
After Polis and his staff approved the variances Wednesday afternoon, the CHSAA Board of Directors approved a fall football season in a 12-3 vote late Wednesday night. That came a week after the board voted unanimously to keep football in the spring during a week of back-and-forth between CHSAA and the governor’s office that led to student-led protests across the state.
After Wednesday’s reversal from last week’s decision making, Polis and CHSAA said each individual school district will have the option of whether or not to participate in the fall or the spring and that both seasons will still be offered. However, schools may only participate in one of those seasons and not both.
Aten said he initially was a “hard no” on playing football in the fall. But, after deliberations within the school district and with superintendents across the state, his position changed to a “reluctant yes.”
“It is a very difficult decision,” Aten said. “We have had four weeks of very successful in-person school. I am a 35-year football, basketball and soccer official. I want our student-athletes out participating as much as anyone. But our first priority is to keep kids safe at school.
“Also, looking at the CHSAA calendars, we would be putting a lot of stress on athletes jamming all of their participation into the spring. So, I think the fact there is a window of opportunity here to pull some of those athletes into the fall when most schools want to participate led us to go back and look at the decision.”
For many, Wednesday night’s announcements came with relief after two weeks of back-and-forth between the governor’s office and CHSAA. Players had hopes built up only to have them taken away again late last week. Now, many will find relief in having a clear answer.
There was also a definitive answer for Mancos on Thursday, as all of the six teams in the 8-man Mountain League voted to play in the fall.
“There have been a lot of ups and downs the last few weeks. What I’m finding is that the kids adjust to all the ups and downs a lot easier than the adults do,” said Mancos head football coach Josh Gardner. “The kids are extremely excited to play this fall. There is a lot to consider, but I think from the get-go our team and a lot of people in our league would prefer the fall season, so it didn’t seem like too hard of a decision to choose the fall. That is the trend for 8-man football across the state.”
Some larger schools in Colorado Springs, such as Harrison and Sierra, which play in the same Class 3A league as Durango High School, have already declared they will play in the spring, though Mitchell in Colorado Springs, which is also in Durango’s league, has opted to play in the fall.
Denver Public Schools have indicated they prefer the spring season.
But most rural schools are already moving to play in the fall. That includes Bayfield High School in Class 2A. Ignacio in Class 1A and Mancos in 8-man. Bayfield and Ignacio have already approved fall football while Durango awaits to make a decision after meeting with SJBPH, which also oversees Bayfield and Ignacio.
In the same Class 2A league as Bayfield is Montezuma-Cortez. The Re-1 School District met Thursday to discuss possibilities. Head coach Ivan Mack said he wasn’t sure if a decision would be made until Monday’s deadline.
“The district is going to make the best decision based on what is best for the kids,” Mack said. “What is safest for all and gives kids the most opportunities. This is the main consideration.
“I could go either way. But I’m probably leaning more toward the spring based on what we had planned for. We do it if they tell us to do it. But, at this point, the kids are focused on the way it was set up in the spring after that decision was made.”
Teams that play in the fall will get six regular-season games. For classifications 2A and smaller, that is three less than normal. It is four fewer for schools in Classes 3A-5A. The state playoffs will have eight-team brackets instead of 16. Teams that do not qualify for the state tournament can play an additional seventh game the week of Thanksgiving to add an extra game. The structure for the season will be the same in the spring as it is in the fall.
“It makes every play in every game really important. Every game is going to be important,” said DHS head coach David Vogt about the short schedule and smaller playoff field. “It’s going to come down to who makes less mistakes and who makes more penalties. But that’s no different than what we always say.”
Ignacio athletic director Leo Garand said four of the six teams, including the Bobcats, in the 1A Southern Peaks League have voted to play in the fall. Still, he said they didn’t want to release any information to the players until a schedule was finalized.
CHSAA associate commissioner Adam Bright, a former DHS athletic director who now oversees football for CHSAA, said CHSAA would build regular-season schedules for the entire state. He did not want district athletic directors to have to scramble on two-weeks notice to build a football schedule for the third time this year.
If 50% of teams in a certain league declare for the spring, then the rest of the teams in that league that choose a fall season will play in redrawn leagues with games that make sense geographically to aid with travel.
There will be state champions crowned in the fall and spring seasons. Fall state championships will be contest Dec. 5 and semifinals to be played Nov. 28. Spring games will begin March 11, and state championships will be contested May 8.
Games will look a little different. Players and coaches must keep three to six-feet of distance on the sidelines when not participating. They also must wear masks. Players will be able to spread out further down sidelines to accommodate distancing. There will also be a cap on no more than four team managers and trainers on each sideline.
Aten, who coordinates football officials in Southwest Colorado, said he is worried if there will be enough officials ready to go for the start of games the first week of October.
“We have to get football officials schooled up now,” Aten said. “Not all of them have got their testing and certifications done. I’m worried about having enough officials to cover games.”
Knorr, who said he would continue to advocate for boys soccer and volleyball to also return to play, said the current proposal would allow a maximum of 175 fans to attend football games with priority for players’ parents. He indicated tickets would likely be made available online ahead of games to make the process fair.
Aten said having parents be able to purchase tickets first is one of his highest priorities.
“There has to be a ticket system, and our league is working on it to give parents first choice,” Aten said. “I feel strongly about that. It is nice other people support us, but right now the numbers are so small that we want to make sure parents can see their kids play. We are installing a video system, and people might have to get used to getting high school football from the (National Federation of State High School Associations) video stream. You see Wolverine Country Stadium for a football game, and it is full, so 175 is not a lot of people.”
While there is plenty of work to do in the coming days and weeks, it now appears as though much of the state will return to the field in early October.
“I would like to thank the CHSAA Board of Directors and the CHSAA staff for their commitment to reconsidering the options once the variances were provided to the CHSAA office,” CHSAA Commissioner Rhonda Blanford-Green said in a statement posted to CHSAANow.com. “I would also like to thank our membership, who has been in this whirlwind as we sought a resolution. We look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with the governor’s office to obtain variances for wrestling, swimming and other sports in Seasons B, C and D.”
Bayfield High School head coach Gary Heide was unable to provide comment for this story. BHS athletic director Derrick Martin could not be reached for comment.