High schools get ready to play ball

  • Eric Riggs, assistant groundskeeper for the Bow School District, works on a athletic field on Friday to prepare fields in case there are games for the coming fall schedule. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 7/31/2020 2:28:04 PM

Thursday was a full one for Dean Cascadden.

In the morning, the superintendent of schools in Bow and Dunbarton, was part of a New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association Council meeting on the return of high school athletics in the state this fall.

Thursday night, Cascadden participated in a school board meeting where he spent three hours discussing his district’s plans for returning students safely to classrooms before the agenda even reached sports. Once it did, Cascadden revealed some details from the NHIAA meeting and made his return-to-play recommendations.

The NHIAA Council – which includes other superintendents, principals, athletic directors, coaches and a state school board member – voted to delay the start of the fall sports season until Sept. 8 and issued an updated set of reopening guidelines. The council also reaffirmed that it would recognize all fall sports for the 2020-21 school year, but Cascadden made it clear that the decision on whether or not to play some or all sports would be left up to the schools.

“First of all, the NHIAA does not determine what sports are played in the state,” Cascadden said to begin the sports-related portion of the school board meeting. “What you have to understand about the NHIAA is their sole purpose in the state is to run state tournaments, and they set rules for state tournaments and because people want to participate in and win state tournaments, they abide by those rules. … So I want to emphasize whatever the NHIAA decides, it’s still our local decision of what, how and when we play.”

High school student-athletes across the state have been participating in workouts for weeks, and they will continue to do so, but now they won’t have a fully sanctioned team practice until Sept. 8 (the previous start date was Aug. 17). That delay will give school districts more time to make decisions and implement protocols around athletics.

“One of the things I tried to emphasize to the NHIAA is if they started the season, or sports meetings or practices or anything prior to school opening, that many places would just say we can’t play,” Cascadden said. “We have to establish our school protocols, we have to get our kids in school and establish some things before we can play.”

Dan Meserve, the athletic director at Hopkinton Middle/High School, is grateful for the delayed start.

“That buys some time to further evaluate where we are as a state, and gives a little more breathing room to School Boards and Administrators to decide what their particular district will allow,” Meserve said in a group email to Hopkinton athletics stakeholders. “Tough decisions will still need to be made about whether or not we are able to offer all sports, some, or none … Please disregard all schedules that are currently posted.  Some opponents (or we) may still cancel seasons, we may have to navigate bus issues, and schools may look to play more regional schedules.  Again, I hope this becomes clearer as we get closer to September.”  

One point of emphasis from the NHIAA was for schools to have plans in place in case of increased spread of COVID-19.

“Due to high probability of recurrent outbreaks in the coming months, schools must be prepared for periodic school closures and the possibility of some teams having to isolate for two or more weeks while in-season. Each school district should develop policies regarding practice and/or competition during temporary school closures, the cancellation of contests during the regular season.”

Bow and Dunbarton’s reopening plans, including those for sports, were based on differing levels of the coronavirus in the community, although the metrics to define those levels are still to be determined. At the green level, the community spread would be considered low with few school cases reported; at the yellow level, the community spread would be moderate with multiple school cases; and at the orange level, the virus would be widespread throughout the community and school.

Cascadden’s recommended that all Bow High School sports teams be allowed to play if the district was at the green level (with possible limits to travel and scheduling), but if the district reached the yellow level, no interschool play would be allowed and contact sports (football, soccer and field hockey in the fall) would not be allowed to practice.

The guidelines issued by the NHIAA on Thursday included new recommendations for crowds (maximum of 50% of facility capacity, one-way traffic flow where possible), indoor practices (encouraged to be non-contact and socially distanced), weight rooms (50% capacity of facility or number of people who can remain 6-feet apart, whichever number is smaller) and check-in counters (sneeze guard barriers recommended). The NHIAA also issued sport-specific recommendations to schools.

A key item discussed at the NHIAA Council meeting was the possibility of open tournaments, meaning that no matter how many games a team played during the season or the team’s win-loss record, it could still participate in the NHIAA’s season-ending state tournament.

Cascadden and Bow High athletic director Mike Desilets, who also attended both the NHIAA and school board meetings on Thursday, believed the NHIAA is leaning toward open tournaments, which could provide schools more flexibility with schedules without the added pressure of needing to account for any kind of game or record requirements to reach the tournament and have a shot at a state title.

“In my mind, the open tournament means that now it’s open season, so whatever work we did on the schedules we can just dump that out, and that’s fine,” Desilets said at the school board meeting. “Now we can control where or when we’re going to play a little bit more. We can stay local. We can play Merrimack Valley three times if we have to. We don’t have to necessarily go to what would be more of a New Hampshire hot spot or something like that.”

The flexibility for each school and each sport within the school to create a schedule that works best may provide the most opportunities for high school teams across the state to play.

Desilets said that having sanctioned high school teams could create a safer overall school environment than canceling high school sports altogether.

“If we don’t (have sanctioned high school sports), they’re going to play, we just won’t have that control,” Desilets said. “Just my opinion, I guess, but I can look at the soccer roster and if we don’t have a Bow High School girls’ soccer team, I can probably pick six girls from that team that all of a sudden just went to Seacoast (a club soccer team) and they are going to play in tournaments all weekend long, all season long, and then come back to school on Monday morning after being in New Jersey and playing against eight different teams from who knows where.”

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