Local high schools cautiously preparing for fall sports

  • Bow football coach Paul Cohen practices social distancing as he works with offensive lineman at the school’s practice field on Thursday evening, June 25, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 8/13/2020 4:09:51 PM

There was no formal vote during Wednesday night’s SAU 24 School Board meeting, but there were also no objections to John Stark Regional High School moving forward with its preparations to play sports this fall.

“The board discussed it, and there were no objections and nothing to stop us, so for now we’re planning on playing fall sports,” John Stark athletic director Mark Searles said.

Other local high schools like Merrimack Valley, Bishop Brady, Bow and Pembroke Academy are more or less in the same situation and are making plans to play sports this fall, even though they all know those plans could change at any moment.

“It’s definitely being discussed at the board level, but no one has said no at this point, so we’re making the appropriate plans,” MV athletic director Kevin O’Brien said. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t all turn on a dime.”

The Concord School Board decided last week that all co-curricular activities, including sports, would be put on hold for the time being. That decision halted all of the summer workouts for Concord High athletes, but, amid pressure from parents and students, the board will revisit that decision on Monday.

Hopkinton High is also in a unique position among the local schools since it is still waiting for its budget to be passed. The town already voted against two proposed school district budgets in May. A third vote is scheduled for Saturday.

“Everybody’s focus is on the budget and depending on which way that goes, there’s still a chance there could be cuts to sports,” Hopkinton athletic director Dan Meserve said. “So, we’ve got plans in place until we’re told no and we’re still tentatively moving forward.”

Hopkinton student-athletes are still participating in summer workouts, as are student-athletes from other local schools, with the exception of Concord High.

“We have a bunch of things going on. The soccer team is working out on Fruit Street, field hockey had a camp this week, football is going on Tuesdays and Thursdays with skills and drills,” said Tony Johnson, the long-time Bishop Guertin coach who was recently hired as the athletic director and football coach at Bishop Brady.

The Brady football team plays in Division IV, where it looks like two of the schools – Mascoma and Somersworth – will not be playing football this fall. As long as the rest of D-IV stays in place, Johnson believes his Brady team can have a relatively “normal” schedule this fall. But that probably won’t be the case for other teams at Brady and other local schools.

While football games need to be between schools of similar size for safety reasons, other sports don’t have those restrictions. So, even though the Brady football team wouldn’t play against the MV football team, the two schools could face off on the soccer pitch or the field hockey field even though they are in different divisions. MV and Brady will probably do something like that this fall as they, along with the rest of the schools in the state, look to play a local schedule in order to minimize travel and the risk/potential spread of COVID-19.

“I think across the state whatever schedules that everybody had, those have basically gone in the trash can,” O’Brien said. “For those that can play, we’re going local as much as possible. The NHIAA has removed a ton of parameters in terms of qualifying for the tournament, so it doesn’t matter how many games you play in your division and it doesn’t matter who you play, everyone can go to the tournament. So, we could play Concord, we could play Hopkinton and we could still go to the tournament. The only thing that is still on the table in terms of tournament play, the only thing we’re still unsure of with that, is football. Everything else is currently a go.

Not only will schedules look different in terms of opponents, but the number of games will likely change as well. For example, most soccer teams play 16 regular-season games during a typical NHIAA slate and most football teams play between eight and 10 regular-season games, but that probably won’t be the case this fall.

“If we play 10 soccer games, I’ll be thrilled,” O’Brien said. “If we play five football games, I’d be thrilled.”

O’Brien said he has gone to some summer tournaments for different sports and he’s seen varying degrees of caution when it comes to the coronavirus. He said that will not be the case at MV if and when fall sports are allowed, and he believes that other local schools will also be more apt to strictly enforce guidelines.

“I can tell you at the Valley my thumb is on everybody in athletics. They will wear masks or do whatever else they are asked to do or they won’t play or coach,” O’Brien said. “That’s not up for negotiation because I want to do everything I can to make sure the kids have an opportunity to play, and I have faith in our neighboring schools that they will do the same.”

O’Brien also brought up a point that Bow athletic director Mike Desilets raised during his district’s school board discussion about sports two weeks ago – if there are no high school sports, the kids who have the resources will simply go and play club sports. That could lead to greater risk of COVID-19 spread because some of those clubs travel out of state or invite out-of-state teams to come to New Hampshire. And it could also create an unfair divide between public school students who can afford club sports and those who can’t.

“I believe that sports are part of the public school experience, but it has to be equitable, and the best way to do that is with sanctioned high school sports,” O’Brien said. “So, I’m preparing to play, I will do whatever it is I can to make sure the kids have an opportunity, but at the end of the day, I serve at the school board’s will and if the board tells me we can’t play, we won’t play.”


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