With the Stoughton Area School District’s approval to play games outside of Dane County, the next month will be like a rollercoaster going backward.
District superintendent Tim Onsanger gave the green light on Wednesday, Jan. 6, for high school winter sports teams to play games outside of the county starting Jan. 7. The shortened season will be one to three weeks before postseason play begins for basketball, boys hockey, boys swimming and wrestling.
“I think our students needed a choice of whether they wanted to play,” Onsanger said. “You can’t re-create that on Zoom.”
But the WIAA has not moved back any of its postseason schedule, with most counties having allowed sports to go on since the fall.
In Dane County, games have been prohibited based on Madison Public Health and Dane County’s order that limits gatherings to 10 people or fewer inside and 25 or fewer outside. That ruling changed Monday, Jan. 11, to 50 people outside but still requires social distancing for high risk sports, which generally are contact sports such as football and basketball.
Onsanger said a couple key pieces fell into place that helped him make the decision. Public Health Madison and Dane County gave school districts the green light to bring students back for in-person learning in phases and the district has been concerned about the social and emotional needs of students, he said.
There is no playbook or road map for this year’s sports season. For some students and coaches, if a team can play one game before the end of the season, they are considering that a success story.
It’s been 10 months since the Stoughton wrestling team captured its third straight WIAA Division 1 state championship.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Stoughton co-wrestling coach Bob Empey said. “I think our whole community is excited about the opportunity for our student-athletes for what we can create in a safe environment. I think they are excited because they have something to look forward to. The No. 1 thing is being healthy, pandemic or not.”
The complexity of scheduling games and practices with the overlapping seasons and establishing and enforcing safety protocols adds to the difficulty of an already tough job of being a coach.
First year football head coach Jason Becker had his first full coaching staff meeting Sunday, Jan. 10.
“The biggest challenge is how are we going to practice,” Becker said. “The reality of starting practice on March 8 is we will likely going to be indoors. We will have 21 days to get ready to play Waunakee.”
The return to sports comes with many new rules.
Masks and at least 6 feet of social distance will be required for all basketball and hockey players on the court, ice and bench.
Athletes must fill out a health screening form before every practice and game. A follow-up COVID-19 tracing verification form before a game and again one week after a game are also required.
Each team has a minimum number of practices it must hold before the start of games. Boys and girls basketball teams must hold seven practices, hockey teams need 10 and wrestling teams need eight.
Wrestling teams across the state are limited to one dual or tournament per week this season. Stoughton will compete in a regional on Jan. 30, which means they will have two dual meets before postseason play starts.
Athletic director Mel Dow said additional buses will be used for transportation of teams on game days. The high school will put about 10 players and coaches on each bus.
Dow said for road games, the COVID-19 protocols in other counties must be followed, including any ruling on spectators. In schools in Rock County, four spectators are allowed per player to attend games. Tickets are distributed ahead of the game time.
For Capitol Conference schools, four spectators living in the same household per player are allowed to attend games in-person. Spectators can only watch the game in which their student-athlete plays and the gyms are cleared between games.
Some schools may allow fans. Other schools are using YouTube, Facebook and online broadcasts.
The delayed fall sports season starting in February and March will overlap with both winter and spring sports.
Boys basketball ends in the first week of March, and the softball, baseball and boys track seasons start April 19, about two weeks before football ends. A few fall sports, such as golf, will continue into mid-May.
Multi-sport athletes will be allowed to play two sports at the same time, Dow said. Students won’t have to designate a primary sport, but could be involved in two spring sports at the same time. “We want to provide opportunities,” he said.
The communication in whether a player is competing in football or track will be made jointly by the student-athletes and their coaches. There might be a time where a football player has to miss a practice to run in a track meet or play a baseball game.
Becker, who is also an assistant wrestling coach, said the biggest key will be communication.
“We intentionally scheduled our Week 7 (football) game on a Saturday afternoon to avoid spring sports competition,” Becker said. “We will encourage them to go compete in that spring sport and then still be able to finish up our season on Saturday. Everyone has to be a little bit flexible this year and be willing to support each other’s programs.”
Many of the football players are on the wrestling team or playing other winter sports.
“The biggest motivator for our seniors is they feel like they have a lot to prove,” he said. “Our underclassmen are really buying into that mindset that we are the first team in school history to get to compete in two football seasons in one year.”
Scramble to schedule games
There is a tight window for scheduling games for area athletic directors.
After six straight days of basketball practice or games, teams are required to have one day off. Another challenge is finding teams with an opening on their schedule, and facilities to play outside of the county.
Many athletic directors are using Twitter, email and the WIAA website to schedule games. However, most of the teams in the county are all trying to schedule games at the same time at locations outside of Dane County.
Dow said that has been a challenge.
“We are only at 50% capacity of what we anticipated what we would have scheduled,” he said.
Empey said it’s worth the trouble, however.
“It’s upon us and our community to do this right, so our students and families get an opportunity to be a part of the tournament series,” Empey said.