The Alabama High School Athletic Association has made its decision to start fall sports on time, as of now. Let the individual decisions begin.
The AHSAA held a near-45-minute news conference Thursday spelling out “best practices” and how to proceed amid a resurgent COVID-19 pandemic, but it comes down to local school boards, school officials, coaches and even families making decisions.
Coaches were already facing those realities on the family end.
Oxford head football coach Keith Etheredge said one likely starter is on the fence about playing this season. Another player likely to see playing time has all but backed out.
How does Etheredge handle it? Like the AHSAA has handled it, he said … in a supportive way.
“If it’s something that them and their parents decide, I’m going to be completely supportive and do everything I can to help them,” the five-time state champion coach said.
Thursday’s AHSAA news conference, featuring Executive Director Steve Savarese, Associate Executive Director Alvin Briggs and Assistant Director Denise Ainsworth, came on the heels of Wednesday’s announcement that fall sports will start on time.
Teams can begin acclimation workouts Monday. The official start of practice is Aug. 3, with the first contests set for Aug. 20-21.
The AHSAA allowed summer workouts starting June 1, the first team activities the AHSAA allowed after halting spring-sports play in mid-March.
As for the decision to start fall sports as scheduled, AHSAA officials used Thursday’s news conference to spell out their thinking. They also highlighted facets of the “best practices” document the Central Board approved Wednesday, with specifics for each fall sport.
• For cross country, it will mean wider courses, to promote distancing.
• For volleyball, the AHSAA suspended changing benches, moved the prematch conference to center court, with only head coaches, and will limit people at officials table.
• The football players box will expand, stretching between both 10-yard lines. Timeouts will extend to as long as two minutes, to allow for distribution of individual water bottles. Only one captain will participate in coin tosses.
Those were highlights.
Savarese also spelled out the reality behind the AHSAA’s decisions at a time when other states, including neighboring Georgia, are delaying or not playing fall sports.
“Please know, these best practices will not eliminate the risk, only mitigate,” Savarese said. “Parents will now have options, not only on how they educate their children, but as always, parents must make a personal choice on whether they allow their children to participate in extracurricular activities.
“Unless health officials shut down schools, as well as all activities, the choice will remain with the parents.”
Coaches are confronting those choices. Piedmont’s Steve Smith said a couple of players in grades 7-12 have expressed concerns “based on their family circumstances,” but no one has ruled out playing.
“We certainly respect that,” the four-time state champion coach said. “We’re not going to try to put any pressure on anybody to do anything that they’re not comfortable with.”
Smith and wife Rachel, Piedmont’s softball coach, faced similar decisions with travel ball, allowing sons Sean and Sloan and daughter Savannah to play. Smith called the AHSAA’s call to start fall sports on time “a good decision.”
“Trying to get kids back to some sense of normal, as much as possible, is a great thing,” he said. “School, these kids need to be learning, and they need to be participating in extracurricular.
“Just shutting everything down for another semester, in my opinion, would set everyone back a long way in their education and their athletic development.”
The Etheredge household has its own set of circumstances. His mom lives with them, and COVID-19 disproportionately impacts the elderly. Son Camden is a junior tight end/fullback on Oxford’s team.
Camden, who has developed into a likely larger playing role this season, wants to play.
“I want him to have that opportunity,” his dad said. “If he gets sick, then we’ll deal with that then, just like if he was to get the flu.”
As for Camden’s grandmother, she’s on-board.
“She’s close to 70 years old,” Etheredge said. “She’s in great health, but you don’t want to take that home to the grandparents. She said, herself, that she wants to go watch her baby play football on Friday nights.”
Oxford had an athlete test positive for COVID-19 in late June, forcing that athlete to miss summer workouts and the coaches to cancel voluntary workouts during the week of July 4.
One football player’s family has decided to keep him out of football this season. Another player is torn and appears to have reversed his thinking after expressing concerns.
“He texted me last night and told me, his exact words were, ‘Coach, I just sort of lost my mind for a minute. I can’t do it. I’ve got to play,’” Etheredge said. “He was there this morning, and I was happy to see him here.”
The coach said he will support any such decisions players and their families make.
The AHSAA has taken a similar approach for school systems that might undertake difficult decisions on whether not to play or forfeit games. Forfeits will come without penalties, Savarese said.
Etheredge said he likes the AHSAA’s approach.
“It sort of gives people choices, and it just seems like, nowadays, people want to make decisions for other people so much,” he said. “They want to tell you what you need to be doing, when people should have the choice, if that’s what they want to do.
“I choose that I want to work. All my coaches want to be at work. They want to be around the kids. They want football season to go ahead. We want our kids to have an opportunity to play.”