As light forms at the end of the pandemic tunnel, area high schools have adapted a hybrid style of weekly learning: a couple days of in-person instruction, supplemented by the distance learning that has dominated public education in the time of coronavirus.
High school athletics, meanwhile, have finally returned after being delayed through the first half of academic calendars. The fall sports season began Feb. 1 with shortened seasons of football, cross-country, girls’ swim and dive and cheerleading. On Feb. 8, girls’ soccer, slowpitch softball and volleyball followed.
The spring sports calendar began on March 22, seeing girls’ tennis, fastpitch softball, track and field, baseball, golf, and boys’ soccer played. The “winter” sports schedule begins May 9, and will feature basketball, boys’ swim and dive, gymnastics, wrestling and cheerleading.
While there are different rules for each phase of state re-opening guidelines, the biggest development affecting schools statewide is the elimination of all playoff and tournament play, meaning that the 2020-21 school year will not crown state champions in any sport.
Bring on the fans
Spectators, however, are back. Under Phase 3 guidelines, school facilities with up to 1,600 permanent outdoor seats can operate at 50% capacity or 400 people, whichever is fewer. For facilities with more than 1,600 seats, capacity is limited to 25%. Athletes, officials, coaches and staff don’t count towards the capacity numbers for these outdoor sports.
Indoor sports can have up to 400 people or 50% capacity, though the aforementioned participants count towards capacity restrictions. Where permanent seating isn’t available, spectators are limited to seated groups up to six people per 100 square feet, with all spots pre-determined.
Masks are still required for everyone during practices and competitions, of course, and movements back to Phase 2 guidelines are possible for the schools in every county, should those counties not meet Phase 3 benchmarks.
Masked and happy
Ferndale High School football coach Jamie Plenkovich has never had to remind players to spread out and keep their masks on before, but this year he added those phrases to his practice session vocabulary.
In a season shortened from 10 games to six, Plenkovich said the Golden Eagles football team (5-1) did a great job adhering to mask -wearing and social distancing through their practices and games.
“I think everyone wanted to take the opportunity to be able to (play),” he said. “So, it’s been pretty good as far as compliance and lack of complaining.”
The team’s first two weeks of practice, with Phase 1 guidelines limiting practice to six-player pods, created challenges in practicing for an 11-player game. Once Phase 2 guidelines eased those issues in mid-February, however, Plenkovich said the team still was cautious to limit close contact between players.
While several team members contracted COVID-19, they did so away from the football field and didn’t infect any other players, Plenkovich said. Because every play in a practice is scripted, or planned in advance, coaches can ensure periods of close contact remain as short as possible.
“If you’re practicing your passing game, for example, even if you’re going against a defense, a play is five or six seconds in length,” he said. “And when you start to play, you’re more than six feet apart from anyone else.”
Not a year anyone expected
In the event of an infected player, anyone who’s come into “close contact” — defined as being within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes — with that player will be ruled ineligible to compete, as a precaution, Plenkovich said. Each school district is responsible for determining, in coordination with their county’s health department, if they cannot compete because an outbreak results in not having enough players, he added.
Those returning to other sports are also being forced to confront the changed procedures of sports during a pandemic.
Liam Romanyshyn, a senior at Sehome High School in Bellingham, plays soccer and tennis. While mask-wearing has felt a little weird at times, he said it’s just something athletes have to get used to. He prefers snug-fitting surgical masks, as they absorb less sweat than reusable cloth masks.
Even if masks are a little uncomfortable at times, it’s better than the alternative.
“It’s definitely not the senior year that anybody would have expected,” he said, “but I’m glad we get to play and we can make the most of (it).”
Just a little bit louder, now
Hope Jose-Day, a senior cheerleader and wrestler at Ferndale High, agrees.
“I’m so grateful,” she said. “I feel like the coronavirus has kind of opened my eyes and made me realize everything that I took for granted. I feel like it’s done that for a lot of us. Getting back into sports, being able to be out on the sidelines for football cheer … I’m just very excited, very happy to be a part of that school spirit again and be out with my teammates.”
Jose-Day said that masks forced her cheer squad to shout just a little bit louder at football games, since masks muffle their voices a bit. They mostly practiced their cheers and chants socially distanced from one another, and only resumed stunting cheers during the last couple days of the season.
For wrestling, however, Jose-Day said she’s not sure how effective masking will be given the close quarters of the sport.
“When you’re breathing on someone’s face, literally wrestling with them up-close, there’s absolutely no way to avoid coming into close contact with somebody,” she said. “But I do support and encourage safety measures above anything else.”
No playoffs? No problem.
During their layoffs from participation, Romanyshyn stayed in shape by playing tennis with friends and through an informal, coach-free high school league at Bellingham Tennis Club. Jose-Day focused on her pastimes of aerial silk acrobatics and dancing.
Although both players will not have an opportunity to vie for state titles this season, they’re not that disappointed about the lack of playoffs.
Romanyshyn said not defending their state title in soccer is unfortunate, but getting back to and staying on the field is what matters, given the circumstances. For Jose-Day, competing as a wrestler has always been more about making herself stronger, while also developing good morals and work ethic.
“As long as I get to wrestle, get out there on the mat, spend some time with my team, have an opportunity to resume my senior season, that’s what really matters to me,” she said.
Focus on improvement
As a coach, Plenkovich said the lack of a postseason did nothing to change the way his team prepared or planned their practices in games. As always, the focus has been on getting better with each opportunity.
“Sometimes the scoreboard doesn’t really tell you how you did,” he said. “We can tell by how we practiced that day. Did we challenge the kids to get better as players and better as a team, each and every day? Having that focus maybe makes it a little easier to not worry about whether we’re going to play in the postseason or not.”
But even as COVID cases decrease and restrictions are relaxed, the lingering effects of a full year of pandemic distancing are visible. This includes a slower return to previously uninhibited social gatherings like sporting events.
Jose-Day said that at Ferndale’s last football game, about 400 people total were present due to Phase 3 guidelines taking effect. [Editor’s Note: Updated on March 28, 2021, to more accurately reflect total attendance.] While about 250 students were allowed to watch that game in the student section of the grandstand, only about 150 signed up, she said.
“That really just goes to show how much the coronavirus has had an impact — not just on the sports and the athletes themselves, but also on the community surrounding the sport,” she said. “It’s kind of crazy.”