By Bob Skolnik
While high school football, boys soccer and girls volleyball players have had their seasons postponed until February due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, high school athletes in six fall sports have been competing this fall in what the Illinois High School Athletic Association has deemed low-risk sports.
But their seasons this year have been far from normal. The IHSA has cancelled all state meets and has limited participation at any event to no more than 50 athletes, disrupting normal scheduling and limiting competitions. Schools have also instituted a range of protective measures to minimize risk to athletes.
Boys and girls cross country, boys and girls golf, girls swimming and girls tennis are the sports that have been competing this fall. The athletes in those sports say that being allowed to have a season at all has been a valuable outlet, combatting the social isolation they've experienced due to remote learning. It's a couple hours of normality each day for teenage athletes.
"Being able to see my coach, my teammates, and my friends every afternoon in practice and at meets has made this situation better," said Emma McVicker, a sophomore swimmer at Riverside-Brookfield High School during the public comment portion of a school board meeting last month.
Sophomore RBHS cross country runner Bryce Pacourek feels the same way. After a day of sitting in front of her computer attending classes via Zoom, she is excited to go to the school for practice.
"It's so nice just to be able to talk to people and not have to do it online," said Pacourek, the top runner on the RBHS girls cross country team. "Team bonding is so much fun, and it's so great to just be with the team because they're so supportive and it makes training so much easier."
But Pacourek, whose goal this year was to qualify for the state meet, will not have an opportunity to run that race, because the IHSA is ending the season at the sectional level. State meets draw hundreds of competitors and spectators. The IHSA does not want that many people congregating in the same place.
Other large invitationals have been cancelled and athletic directors have scrambled to fill out new schedules with smaller meets with nearby schools. To keep the numbers down, most competitions are dual meets, with the occasional meet featuring three or four teams. Lyons Township High School is only competing against fellow members of the West Suburban Conference.
"It's been different not being able to play all the teams that we typically do," said LTHS Athletic Director John Grundke.
Although the level of competition is not the same, athletes are happy to simply have the chance to compete.
"Having a season is fulfilling in itself, and the fact that we've been able to do that speaks volumes for all those involved," said Brendan Curtin, the assistant principal for athletics at RBHS.
Many precautions are taken to minimize the risk of spreading the virus. Spectators are not allowed at most events, though they have been present at RBHS home cross country meets run at Indian Gardens Park in Riverside and Ehlert Park in Brookfield. The teams' normal home course is at Sundown Meadow Forest Preserve.
At LTHS, no spectators are allowed on the home cross country course at the school's South Campus.
"Most of the parents have been great about it," Grundke said. "We try to livestream every race so they can watch on Twitter. If somebody wants to come and park their car in our parking lot and stay in their car that's perfectly fine, they just can't come out to the course."
The lack of spectators affects the atmosphere, said RBHS girls swimming coach Mike Laurich. Other swimmers cannot even be on the pool deck or in the bleachers when their teammates are competing.
"It makes it a more sterile type atmosphere, because kids like to perform in front of their teammates," Laurich said. "The times as a whole are a little off from what they normally would be, and I think a part of that is that when their peers are there in the stands watching."
Social distancing is practiced as much as possible at meets and during practices. As a result, relays, often the most exciting part of a swim meet, have been eliminated. At practice, the swimming pool is divided in two with half the team starts from one end while the other half starts from the other end. Typically, two or three swimmers are in a lane with staggered starts during workouts.
"It's missing something," Laurich said. "Even though we're together I think they miss that group dynamic when half the team is at the other side of the pool."
Once they come out of the water, swimmers have to put masks on right away.
Other than swimmers, athletes at RBHS and LTHS generally don't enter the school when they come for practices.
Curtin had a couple of stationary bikes brought out to the football stadium so athletes could use them without going inside the building. Teams that normally do weight training are forsaking that this year.
Of course, social distancing can't be enforced during a cross country race, and runners often race next to or right behind each other, sometimes literally breathing down the neck of the runner ahead of them.
At LTHS, cross country runners from each team each have their own finishing chute so that members of different teams are kept away from each other.
In golf, precautions are taken to minimize contact.
"They don't use rakes to rake sand traps. They leave the pin in so they don't touch the pin," Grundke said. "We have them wearing masks until they strike the first ball on the first tee. Once they are out on the course, they don't put masks on, [but] some choose to."
There are no post-match handshakes either.
In tennis each team will often use only their own set of tennis balls.
"You would only use the LT balls when you're serving," Grundke said.
When you need to return a ball of the other team to your opponent you hit it back with your racket rather than pick it up.
School officials at LTHS say that four athletes there have tested positive for COVID-19 this fall, but that no team has had to quarantine as a result.
There have been no positive cases of COVID-19 reported among athletes at RBHS although the members of the boys cross country team had to quarantine for nearly a week in August after a team member reported symptoms. That team member ultimately tested negative for COVID and team practices were able to resume.
All RBHS athletes have their temperature checked before practice and are asked about symptoms by a staff member, usually the coach.
The IHSA has recently allowed football, boys soccer and girls volleyball coaches to have 20 contact days with athletes this fall for sport-specific training but no physical contact. The LTHS football team has already started drills, while RBHS teams are planning to start on Oct. 19.
"Running backs are running in between cones and doing different moves, we can punt the ball, we can catch the ball. We don't have any skin to skin contact, we don't have any blocking, tackling," Grundke said.
Although practicing and competing with all the new protocols have changed things athletes and coaches agree that having some type of season is far better than having no season at all.
"It's been a ton of work; it's been a lot stress. It's been a lot of people working for a common goal, but I think for our kids it's been a great experience," Grundke said. "We've had about 420, 450 kids who were able to participate in their fall sports, so that's been great."