| Special to Detroit Free Press
MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl ‘excited’ about return of winter contact sports
MHSAA leader Mark Uyl gives the details about what’s next for winter contact sports after they were given the go ahead by MDHHS on Feb. 4, 2021.
Brian Calloway, Lansing State Journal
They will get to play after all.
Athletes in the four winter “contact” sports — boys and girls basketball, hockey, wrestling and girls competitive cheer — will finally begin their seasons next week.
Even though they haven’t had any contact practices yet, games in basketball and hockey can begin Monday; hockey and competitive cheer can start competition next Thursday, Feb. 11.
“What we’ve heard from all of our winter coaches is that our kids have never been in better condition,” Michigan High School Athletic Association executive director Mark Uyl said Thursday. “With all of the conditioning that has gone on the last three weeks, we’ve even had a few wrestlers joke that it felt like cross country practice the last three weeks as much as they’ve been running.”
Of course, it isn’t that simple when you are attempting to participate in athletics during a worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which along with Governor Gretchen Whitmer, opened the door to begin the seasons, has stringent requirements. The MDHHS said Thursday only two fans per athlete can attend games, despite a previous ruling permitting 100, 250 or 500 fans, depending on the venue.
Masks must be worn at all times during basketball and hockey practices and games. Competitive cheer participants must wear masks unless they are in active participation on the mat.
The biggest challenge will be the enforcement of the mask rule in a sport like basketball. At many schools football players did not wear masks and some football coaches also ignored the rule.
There appeared to be little enforcement of the mask rule in football, but many spectators couldn’t tell simply because of the distance between the playing field and the stands. It will be more evident who is and isn’t wearing a mask in a high school gym.
“As we did during the fall, it’s really a partnership between school administrators, coaches and officials,” Uyl said of enforcement of the mask rule. “And we know that from the fall experience we need to stay diligent. There is a lot of work to do and we will do everything we possibly can to make sure that everybody is following the Health and Human Services order.”
Wrestlers will not be required to wear masks during competition, but they must undergo rapid testing on the day of a meet.
“When you take a step back,” Uyl said, “I think all of us have thought that wrestling, in terms of the winter sports, had some very unique challenges when it came to COVID and keeping everyone as safe as possible.”
[ Stay informed on what’s happening across Michigan: Subscribe to our news alert emails here ]
The testing will be similar to the pilot testing program football, volleyball and girls swimmers underwent when their playoffs resumed in January.
But wrestlers won’t have to undergo testing three days a week, just on days of a meet.
And the MDHHS, as it did in the fall sports, will provide the test at no cost to schools.
It isn’t clear what a single positive test may do to a wrestling meet. Uyl said wrestling teams will do what football teams did when it had a player test positive, beginning with the contact tracing process.
“You work your way backwards over the previous 48 hours,” her said. “In some cases that might quarantine or eliminate an entire team. In other cases it could only be a handful of individuals.”
One of the reasons for permitting games to begin so quickly is the basketball season has been condensed to six weeks. Normal basketball seasons span 13 weeks.
Teams are permitted to play three games per week, which will allow for 18 regular season games, two less than normal. However, once eliminated from the state tournament, teams can play two games up until the day of the state championship games.
“We wanted to give schools as much flexibility as possible in terms of scheduling,” Uyl said. “Don’t forget, our winter kids in those four contact sports have really kind of been in limbo and paused for the last 2½ months. And we have said consistently that when we’re ready to play we would play.”
The MHSAA’s representative council met Thursday after the governor’s news conference and decided not to push back the dates of the state tournaments any further than it did when the beginning of these seasons were delayed in January.
Finals in hockey and competitive cheer will be March 27. The team wrestling finals will be March 30 and the individual finals will be April 2-3.
The boys and girls basketball tournaments will run concurrently with the girls finals on April 9 and the boys on April 10.
Uyl said he is confident the boys and girls basketball championship games will be at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, but the semifinals for both will each have to be played at two high school facilities.
The USA Hockey Arena will likely host the hockey finals, and sites for the competitive cheer and wrestling finals will be determined at a later date.
Uyl said winter sports could be paused by the governor or the MDHHS if there is an uptick of positive cases in the state, just like football, volleyball and girls swimming were delayed. Those sports were paused for eight weeks before they could continue.
But even with that cloud looming over his head, Uyl is approaching the start of these sports with optimism.
“What does give me great confidence,” he said, “and you’ve heard us talk about this for a number of weeks, is the experience of this winter in our three neighboring states — Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio.
“They have all been able to participate in all of their winter sports, contact sports included, and their overall COVID numbers have decreased at about the same general rate as ours have in Michigan, both in terms of new daily cases as well as positive test rate.”
The end dates for the winter tournaments will cause a bit of overlap with spring sports, which did not have a 2020 season.
But Uyl believes there will not be a problem beginning and finishing spring sports.
“I’ve always had high confidence in spring based on our experience this fall,” he said. “Fall sports, the way they were able to go forward, with most of them being outdoors. You put that into spring where our crowds and gathering are the smallest. So there is very high confidence we’ll able to do spring, hopefully without and delay or interruption.”
Uyl can’t wait to get the athletes in the “contact” sports competing, even if it is over two months behind schedule.
“As excited as we were to get fall restarted and to be able to finish,” he said, “we’re probably more excited because really these four winter teams, it’s really been hard on kids and coaches and families and communities.”
Mick McCabe is a former longtime columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1. Save $10 on his new book, “Mick McCabe’s Golden Yearbook: 50 Great Years of Michigan’s Best High School Players, Teams & Memories,” by ordering right now at McCabe.PictorialBook.com.