Thirty-seven states will try to play high school football this fall. Colorado is not one.
Tuesday, after more than a month of waiting for a decision from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis regarding submitted proposals to play all fall sports during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Colorado High School Activities Association announced its schedule for the 2020-21 season. Among the key decisions made Tuesday is that football will be moved to the spring, as will the traditional fall sports of boys soccer and girls volleyball.
This fall, cross-country, boys golf, boys tennis and softball will be held with seasons from August to October. No other CHSAA sports will begin until 2021.
The announcement of football’s postponement came late, as only two other states in the U.S. have yet to make a decision. Practices were scheduled to begin next Monday.
CHSAA maintained throughout the process that it was awaiting word from the governor’s office. Polis spoke Tuesday morning with CHSAA Commissioner Rhonda Blanford-Green, and the announcement Tuesday afternoon was a result of that conversation. Polis said he was glad CHSAA announced it would play every high school sport this season. He said he plans to attend the first event held this fall.
“It’s a really important milestone for high school athletes,” Polis said during his COVID-19 press conference Tuesday afternoon. “Obviously, if there is a coronavirus outbreak on a team or at a school, there will be scheduling changes, there will be games missed. ... I am glad that high school youth sports are going to be back. I am glad they are able to do every sport. And, of course just like professional sports, it’s not going to be like every other season, but they will have their championships, they will have their shortened seasons, they will have their practices, and the kids will be able to participate in that. And that’s really an important part of our society, and I plan to be there for the first one.
“I want to applaud CHSAA for moving forward with youth sports in high school for this year in Colorado in a safe way to make sure we can engage youth and we do it in a way that doesn’t jeopardize a major setback for our state in regard with where we are with coronavirus.”
Though Durango School District 9-R Athletic Director Ryan Knorr said he expected the announcement, it was still surreal to digest once it became official.
“While this is different, if we had tried to return to normal too quick, we were going to have areas of the state hitting pause and putting communities at risk where we might be able to avoid that by playing some sports in March,” Knorr said. “I think it will be a smoother season with less cancellations and hiccups.”
Across the state, reactions were mixed regarding the move of high-risk fall sports, especially football, to the spring. Durango High School senior quarterback Jordan Woolverton, who was eager for a strong fall season for college recruiting purposes, chose to look at the potential positives of the situation.
“When I first heard, it was tough. Everyone is bummed, and it’s a tough bullet to bite,” Woolverton said. “But it’s all about how you come out of it, at the end of the day. I know we are going to make sure our team comes out of it very strong. This is a perfect time to separate ourselves from other teams in the state by working hard during this time. We need to use it as a tool instead of something bad that happened.”
Blanford-Green said she felt confident Colorado would be able to resume all fall sports as regularly scheduled early in the summer. Still, CHSAA came up with contingency plans that eventually had to be implemented as COVID-19 cases continued to rise late in the summer.
After CHSAA was forced to cancel state basketball tournaments after the quarterfinals last March as well as the entire spring sports season, Blanford-Green said the plan for 2020-21 allowed for adjustments to be made if there are future complications or schedule changes.
“I feel like we have more flexibility within a seven-month calendar to give our kids opportunities,” she said. “At least now we have plans, we are not reacting. I feel better with where we’re at with this starting point than coming off March and April and just not having any opportunity to say we can play anything.”
Each school has been given health protocols that must be followed for athletes to be allowed to participate. Blanford-Green said Polis and state health officials would be the powers responsible for any future decision to once again be shut down school sports. She said CHSAA can only follow state officials and the guidelines set.
For now, school administrators and CHSAA are happy to give student-athletes an opportunity to not only play but to be able to compete for scheduled state championships.
“I am excited they got a calendar together and Gov. Polis and CHSAA were able to work together to do what is right for the kids,” Montezuma-Cortez High School athletic director David Robinson said. “We know it’s not ideal, but at least an opportunity is better than nothing.”
In July, it was announced boys golf and tennis and girls softball would be allowed to play as regularly scheduled this fall, though there will be reductions to season lengths. Tuesday, cross-country gained approval to be held this fall with practice to begin Aug. 12 and the first meets to be held Aug. 15. Teams will be limited to no more than seven regular-season meets, with the state championship date tentatively scheduled for Oct. 17.
Blanford-Green said CHSAA fought hard for cross-country the last three weeks and that it was one of the holdups for having a fall sports plan approved. State guidelines currently only allow 25 runners on the course at a time. That cap was extended to 50 runners per gender per day for regular-season meets. That means tough decisions will have to be made by race hosts on how many visiting teams to allow at a race. IN cross-country, five runners must finish to count toward a team score.
Cross-country regionals will be allowed 75 runners on the course for each gender, and the state meet will be allowed 100 runners with a modified chute to prevent large gatherings in start corrals. Each race will have staggered starts with waves of 25 runners at a time.
“The wait is finally over, we have a season. I’m ecstatic,” said Durango High School cross-country coach Ken Flint. “I’m just happy for the kids. People put in the work over the summer. We feel fortunate and thankful to move forward and the kids can pursue their passion. I am curious how competitions are going to happen, and I am concerned for junior varsity runners because they need to compete, as well. Maybe we will have more local meets for JV or some mini meets. I understand there are limits, but I’m just thankful to have a season.”
Instead of three seasons – fall, winter and spring – CHSAA has broken up the 2020-21 sports seasons into four equal parts. The hope is to avoid too much overlapping to help multi-sport students still participate in the bulk of their usual activities.
“This is change. This is different,” Knorr said. “Anytime you do anything different, there’s going to be push back, and it is stressful. But I think as coaches, administrators and leaders in our community, we have to try our best to stay as positive as we can and be as grateful as we can be that we are even having these discussions. We are very privileged to say this is stressful. We are having seasons, they are just shuffled around and shortened. We will wrap our heads around the logistics and square things up on how to handle it.”
Here is a closer look at the three seasons to follow after the fall.
Season B will not begin until a Jan. 4 practice date followed by Jan. 7 as the first competition date. Season B sports will include boys and girls basketball, ice hockey, skiing, spirit, girls swimming and wrestling.
Basketball state championships will be held March 6. Schools in Classes 4A-5A will be allowed 16 regular season games, and Classes 1A-3A will be limited to 13.
The wrestling season will be reduced to seven dual meets and seven more days of competition at tournaments. The state wrestling tournament will be March 6. Venues for state will be determined later.
Season C will include the postponed fall sports of football, boys soccer and girls volleyball. Also in Season C are field hockey, gymnastics and unified bowling.
“I’m excited to have a season,” said DHS football coach David Vogt. “I am excited we still get a chance to play and practice. I’m hoping to have a few seven-on-seven opportunities this fall to continue to grow our kids and keep them involved.”
Football can begin practice Feb. 22 with the first games to be held March 4. Seasons will be reduced from a max of nine or 10 games, depending on classification, down to seven games.
“Football is unique in the ability to only play one game per week,” said CHSAA assistant commissioner Adam Bright. “We looked at the quadrant calendar system, an equitable amount of weeks was needed in each quadrant. To have football fit in a quadrant would mean a reduced season, but with the given constraints of a single game per week, quadrants needed to be long enough to allow a football season as close to normal as possible. Seven games is only two short of a full season for our lower classifications such as Bayfield, Ignacio, Mancos, and Cortez and three short for 3A and above such as Durango. An opportunity to get 70-plus percent of a season into an equitable quadrant was essential to make this work.”
State championship games will be held May 8. State tournaments will be reduced from 16 to eight teams with no guaranteed seeding for league champions. Seedings and brackets will be set by the CHSAA Seeding Matrix.
“League champs have received auto bids into the postseason the past several years, with anywhere from eight to 10 at-large spots for teams that didn’t win their league,” Bright said. “Given a league-heavy schedule and a disparity of strength from league to league, the most equitable opportunity for teams to compete in the postseason was to use the four data points found within the CHSAA Seeding Matrix. Teams in a very strong league are not penalized for finishing second place, and teams that play in a league that is not as strong are not automatically rewarded for playing a schedule that may not have been as strong.”
The other Season C sports can begin practice March 1 and games March 4. Bayfield High School volleyball coach Terene Foutz said she was grateful her athletes will get a chance to play this school year.
“While a spring schedule is different for volleyball, we seriously look forward to it,” Foutz said. “Our program will prepare diligently within allowable parameters, and Bayfield volleyball will be ready.”
Season D will close out the school year and stretch beyond graduation dates, which could become problematic for seniors or players with commitments to summer club sports. Blanford-Green said there is precedent for school activities staring before or continuing after the scheduled school year, and she was not concerned about the “what-if” situations of athletes opting not to participate if they have other commitments. She focused on the ability of CHSAA to provide opportunities for athletes to compete in every sport this year.
Season D is made up of baseball, girls golf, boys and girls lacrosse, girls soccer, boys swimming, girls tennis, track and field and boys volleyball.
Baseball seasons will be shortened just like basketball, with 16 games for the larger schools and 13 for smaller schools.
The last date for Season D is currently set for June 26.
CHSAA qualified Tuesday’s big announcement, noting that the resumption of all activities is subject to change to adhere to national, state and local guidelines surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Blanford-Green said fan attendance or having cheerleaders and bands in stadiums for games depends strictly on guidelines being eased to allow for more people to gather together. Currently, only 10 people are allowed inside a gymnasium and only 25 people outside together sharing a field. The hope is the postponement of sports that could not adhere to those current policies will allow more time for those restrictions to be eased.
Knorr said fan attendance at softball games at DHS will be fewer than 50 people or 25% of normal capacity, whichever number is smaller. He said signage will be posted around the field instructing spectators to wear masks and remain 6-feet apart and that those rules would be enforced and clearly state.
CHSAA said there would be no restrictions on Colorado schools that schedule out-of-state opponents and that each school district would still have the freedom to make those decisions regarding schedules and travel. New Mexico, which last month announced no contact sports would be played in the fall, also will start football Feb. 22. Several Southwest Colorado schools had multiple games scheduled this year with New Mexico opponents.
“Prior to being on the CHSAA staff, I lived and worked as the (athletic director) in Durango,” said Bright. “There are not many schools in the state of Colorado that understand travel like being in Durango when league games all five hours away. We are sensitive to travel and the way of life in the mountains and trying to get around the Western Slope.
“Now that we have our season laid out, schools can begin to rectify scheduling issues from bye weeks, and as is the case in La Plata County and surrounding areas, issues with games against teams from out of state. Our quadrant model appears to align closely with your neighbors in New Mexico, and hopefully, that can alleviate some of the stress in addressing non-league games in Weeks 3-5 for area schools.”
Currently, Durango 9-R and Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 School District are not allowing teams overnight travel. Knorr said that will continue for the foreseeable future. Knorr and Robinson have worked closely together to schedule more games between Durango and Montezuma-Cortez, and they have done the same with all of the Southwest Colorado schools.
“We don’t need to risk overnight travel or add additional stress to coaches right now,” Knorr said. “We are looking at the schedules as strategically as possible and basically rebuilding schedules. Right now, I’m looking as far north as Grand Junction and east to Alamosa. That’s my circle of place we can get to in one day and come back.”