The uncertain high-school football season remains on hold.
However, there’s at least a contingency plan in place following Wednesday’s Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association Board of Control meeting.
A hybrid model was unanimously approved, which is believed to give flexibility in case the season is able to begin earlier than is currently anticipated.
“The TSSAA developed the hybrid model to give member schools the ability to be able to keep as much of their schedules as possible but to keep the sanctity and tradition of the playoffs as much as possible,” Mt. Juliet High head coach Trey Perry said.
Practices for fall sports teams — with the exception of golf (which was allowed to begin practices on July 13) — were originally scheduled to begin Monday. However, Gov. Bill Lee issued Executive Order No. 50 on June 29, which extended the state of emergency related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic until Aug. 29. That order limits contact sports, which includes football, soccer and competitive cheer.
Under Lee’s order, contact sports at the college and professional levels received an exemption. There is hope that those sports at the high-school level will receive the same, as the TSSAA has been in communication with the governor’s office.
“The regulations and guidelines the board passed today go into effect immediately for all sports,” TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress said. “We’re hopeful that the prohibition on contact sports will be lifted before Aug. 29, but if it’s not, the Board of Control has put some policies in place to help keep our kids and communities safe and lay out a road map to the start of our football and girls soccer seasons.”
On July 1, the Board of Control met and voted to mandate that schools follow the executive order, and the TSSAA laid out a plan on July 1 for girls soccer. However, for football, it remained undetermined.
At that time, the TSSAA talked of how that girls soccer could have its state championships postponed two weeks, to allow more time for regular-season play. That is essentially what was approved on Wednesday.
If the executive order does not expire for the contact sports prior to Aug. 29, the season can start for girls soccer teams on Sept. 7.
Dates for postseason play are as follows: Division I district tournaments begin on Oct. 30; Division II-Class A region tournaments must be completed by Oct. 31; Division II-Class AA first-round matches will be played on Oct. 31; Division I regional semifinal matches will be played on Nov. 3; Division II-Class A first-round matches will be played on Nov. 3; Division I regional championship matches will be played on Nov. 5; Division I sectional matches will be played on Nov. 7; Division II quarterfinal matches in both classifications will be played on Nov. 7; and state tournaments will be held from Nov. 11-14.
Also, teams who fail to qualify or are eliminated from the postseason can continue to play regular-season matches until the state tournament concludes.
Prior to the executive order being issued, the girls soccer season was slated to begin on Aug. 17, with the postseason beginning on Oct. 16 and the state tournament being played from Oct. 28-31.
For football teams, the hybrid model that was adopted includes a season that will consist of at least eight regular-season games, followed by four rounds of the playoffs.
Before the hybrid model surfaced earlier this week, four football options were discussed, with the season’s start date for each of those options being Sept. 18.
Option 2 consisted of an eight-week region schedule, which would leave four weeks of the playoffs. That consists of only the top two teams in each region qualifying for the playoffs, as opposed to four teams qualifying for the playoffs in the current format.
“I like the hybrid the best, because it gives us the chance to do the most,” Perry said. “Of the options, I like option 2 the best. To me, it has the best potential to allow schools to continue to take in gate money but also to allow our governing body to operate and take in the money they need. I felt like there was a good balance there.”
If the governor’s executive order declaring a state of emergency still stands as of Aug. 4, regional football games originally scheduled for week 1 of the prep football season will be moved to later in the season. As each week passes where no contact is allowed, the next week’s region games are rescheduled as well.
“We are working hand-in-hand with the governor’s office,” Childress said. “Everything presented today has been vetted by the governor’s office, agreed upon by their legal counsel and by our legal counsel.
“The governor’s (executive order) is still in place. We cannot do anything right now other than weightlifting, conditioning, heat-acclimation periods with no contact. This is not TSSAA versus the governor’s office. Everything has been a joint effort, and we are not in conflict. Our goal is to have an ordinary season as much as possible.”
What the hybrid model will do is to allow each school’s schedule to remain intact as of now.
What option 2 was originally going to consist of was having the TSSAA rework all of the region schedules and depend upon each program to reschedule their non-region contests to the best of their abilities.
As for the potential rescheduling of region games, opponents would look to see if they had an identical open date and then would look to play on the first week that each team had a non-region games. Only regional contests are mandatory to be played.
Fortunately, there are only five regional contests across the state in week 1 and just 13 in week 2, minimizing the potential amount of rescheduling.
The season will start three weeks after high-school teams are allowed to return to practice, but unlike in past years, there will be no preseason 7-on-7 activity, scrimmages or jamborees. In fact, there will be no preseason competition in any TSSAA-sanctioned sports this year.
“The TSSAA is right in saying that it was a major decision to allow us to put on our helmet and shoulder pads,” Perry said. “My biggest fear was not being able to put on our shells (protective equipment) and climatize to the heat. There’s a lot of uncertainty about COVID, but there’s no uncertainty to the pads and the heat.
“I feel like that’s a major safety win for our schools and our coaches. Now, we can get our kids acclimated to the heat.”
In addition, there are numerous safety guidelines that were discussed in relation to football games this fall.
At contests, all coaches, players, team personnel, officials, administrators, and fans must have their temperatures checked before entering the facility. Member schools will require that all fans wear facial coverings at all times while on-site (except for children under age 2) and maintain social distancing (six feet, or the equivalent of two empty seats between themselves and other fans) from anyone other than those living in the same household.
Though they weren’t listed as requirements, other things were recommended as well, such as limiting fan attendance to one quarter or one third of normal admittance, not having school bands in attendance, and not having concession stands.
“It’s going to be different,” Perry said.
Perry indicated that despite the continuing uncertainty, delay and inability to compete currently, his players continue to work hard.
“Here’s what helps me the most … it’s our kids,” Perry said. “Our kids help me the most, because we try to do our best to keep them in the loop too. I want them to know what they’re working every day for. The fact that they show up every day and work the way they work with so much uncertainty, it helps calm my angst about the set schedule and (not knowing) what to do next.”
And Perry pointed out that this has been a year of transition in the area.
“In Wilson County, we got a crash course in adversity before COVID ever hit with the tornado (on March 3),” Perry said. “It’s sort of unique in our county. The way I look at that, the kids, our teachers and our staff did an incredible job of responding to that adversity. We’ve done the same with this.
“I don’t know what the new norm is, but students need extracurriculars to be a part of their day. If it means modifications, we do what we have to do.”