CIAC unveils plan for shortened fall sports season

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By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News

Naugatuck’s Simon Diaz (14) and Woodland’s Dante Polletta (25) battle for the ball Sept. 26 at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls. The CIAC has set parameters for fall sports this year with a later start and shortened seasons. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

There will be a fall high school sports season in Connecticut — hopefully.

The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference released its plan and parameters July 31 for the fall sports season amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most notable aspects of the plan include a delayed start to competition, shortened regular seasons and nontraditional postseason tournaments.

Many details of the fall season, including schedules and the postseason format, are still being worked on and are expected to be announced as the season starts. Regular-season games cannot begin until Sept. 24, and the last date of postseason competition will be Nov. 15 — that means no Thanksgiving football.

If all goes as scheduled, Sept. 24 will be the first day of CIAC-sanctioned high school sports competition since March 9. On March 10, the CIAC canceled the rest of its winter championships, and the shuttering of all state schools soon after forced the cancellation of the spring sports season.

“We do think the health metrics in Connecticut right now suggest it is safe to play in the fall,” CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini said. “Sports have successfully been playing in our state since June 20. Because sports are such an important part of the lives of more than 70,000 high school kids, we are grateful our state leadership has provided us with the best COVID health metrics in the country and an opportunity to give this to our kids.”

Since Phase 2 of Gov. Ned Lamont’s state reopening plan began June 20, a number of youth, high school and collegiate summer leagues have played throughout the state with relatively few virus-related stoppages.

Lungarini said the decision to delay the season and end it well before Thanksgiving was fueled by several major factors — the need for conditioning, the desire to give athletes closure to a season, and the ability to adjust to the new normal of schooling in a pandemic.

“Before we are in full team settings and bringing teams from local towns to our facilities to play, we have to have an opportunity for our schools to get back on campus for learning,” Lungarini said. “It is a very unique scenario for everybody, both in the sports arena as well as the educational setting. … We think finishing by the second week of November is our best chance to give kids a very good and meaningful season, and also provide them with those senior nights and closure activities that mean so much to them.”

Woodland athletic director Chris Decker said he wasn’t sure what to expect when the CIAC announced its fall sports plan, but he’s pleased with the current outlook.

“I was excited that we were given the opportunity to try to play,” Decker said. “I was not surprised, but I was nervous that we wouldn’t have a fall season. Allowing us the opportunity and putting it our hands made me excited to get started.”

The next step is to figure out how each school will develop protocols to keep student-athletes safe and follow COVID-19 precautions, similar to the way district administrations have been preparing for a return to the classroom. If a school is engaged in in-person or hybrid classroom-distance learning, the season will likely proceed. If a school goes to full distance learning, the season will likely stop.

“Right now, I’m working with a small group of people at Woodland to develop a plan for the athletes to return to practice and games safely, much like administration is forming plans for the students to return safely,” Decker said.

Individual schools will make decisions about spectators, which could be different based on indoor and outdoor sports. Anyone not involved in high-intensity competition, including coaches, officials, substitutes and fans, will be required to wear a mask.

Football will be the first sport allowed to meet in groups of 15 starting Aug. 17, with skill practice starting Aug. 24. All other sports will begin Aug. 27, and it won’t be until Sept. 11 when an entire team can engage in practice together.

The regular season will begin Sept. 24, with all sports except football being allowed to play 12 games (no more than two per week). Football schedules will be condensed to six games. The regular seasons will end by Oct. 30.

The CIAC advised schools to strongly consider scheduling contests against schools in the immediate geographical area rather than worrying about traditional league boundaries. That means there likely will not be many, if any, league championships awarded this fall.

Decker said the Naugatuck Valley League’s athletic directors were planning to meet this week to discuss scheduling. For schools such as Woodland and Naugatuck, scheduling should be easier considering the number of surrounding schools within relatively short distances.

“For some schools, that might mean out-of-league games are closer,” Decker said. “For Woodland, we have a close group of NVL schools right in our neighborhood — Ansonia, Derby, Seymour, Naugatuck, Oxford — that make sense for us to play. We have to meet in a group to determine what makes the most sense.”

The CIAC advised that everything included in its fall sports plan is subject to change based on input from individual school districts, state officials and health experts.

“We have to still remind people the health and safety of our kids and our community will remain at the forefront of our decision making,” Lungarini said. “If the health metrics change … and we need to close, we will do that because it is what’s best for the kids.”

Decker hopes at least some of the fall season can be completed for the class of 2021.

“I hope that the seniors get to play the fall season,” Decker said. “If they can get on the field and play some part of the season, that’s a win for the seniors.”