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The wait for high school sports is over
• Prep athletics to return for the first time since COVID-19 coronavirus shutdown
sports in ceres returns
Outdoor sports like cross country will permitted in Stanislaus County now that the San Joaquin Valley stay-at-home order has been lifted. - photo by DALE BUTLER/ Courier file photo

Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted COVID-19 regional stay-at-home orders for the San Joaquin Valley, Southern California and the Bay Area on Monday.

The Sac-Joaquin Section (SJS) will release an updated sports calendar this week for 2020-21 high-school athletics. SJS will follow guidelines released by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) on Dec. 14. The new guidelines included a breakdown of sports allowed according to the state’s color-tiered reopening plan.

“This is the first step in the right direction,” Central Valley High School athletic director Greg Magni said. “We’ll be competing against other people in three to four weeks. We haven’t had an actual sport competition since March. It’s been almost 11 months.”

All counties in the SJS remain in the most-restrictive purple tier (widespread), but outdoor sports like cross country, golf, swim and tennis and track and field will be permitted in regions whose stay-at-home orders have been lifted.

“It’s going to be nice for the kids to experience a little bit of normalcy again,” said Mike Rodriguez, head coach of Central Valley High School’s boys and girls tennis programs.”

“It looks like we’re going to have a season,” Ceres High School track and field head coach Brett Johnson said. “But I’m not going to get my kids’ hopes up. There’s been so much uncertainty. When we get rolling, we’ll know it’s for real.”

While team conditioning for some sports was given the green light in Stanislaus County earlier this month, many sports had been waiting in limbo to see when their activity could resume. 

Counties promoted to the less-restrictive red tier may begin outdoor moderate-contact sports like baseball, softball and cheerleading. Outdoor high-contact sports such as football, soccer and water polo along with indoor low-contact sports like volleyball fall under the orange tier. Indoor moderate- and high-contact sports — basketball, wrestling, martial arts — are in the yellow tier.  

Under CDPH’s current guidelines, high-contact sports like football and basketball appear to be long shots to take place this academic school year.

The CIF has been lobbying for California Department of Health to relax its guidelines and allow all sports in the purple and red tiers. For now, schools within regions not limited by the stay-at-home order have the green light to play whatever sports are available to them.

“Kids aren’t meant to stay indoors all the time,” said Johnson, who also coaches football at Ceres High School. “They need to have opportunities to go outside and play sports. Being a former athlete, you look forward to the competition, camaraderie and memories you’ll make.”

Scheduling will become tricky as schools within the SJS cover 16 counties in three regions. The Section’s Executive Committee met on Jan. 21 and came up with a proposal to essentially dissolve its current “Season 1” and “Season 2” calendars. The proposal will be presented at the Board of Managers meeting.

Season 1 includes traditional fall sports, while Season 2 combines winter and spring sports. The SJS aims to allow its schools to play sports as they become available in accordance with the state’s tiered system. For example, a spring sport such as baseball could take place before football, a fall sport.

“We realize that a one-size-fits-all schedule does not work with the situation we are in now,” Sac-Joaquin Section Vice Commissioner Will DeBoard said. “We’re proposing to allow our leagues to come up with their own sports calendars.”

The CIF is pushing back the start of orange- and yellow-tier sports as late as possible. The CIF Sports Medicine Advisory Committee has said that the earliest teams can start playing football this spring is April 17 with safety concerns in mind for a quick turnaround into the fall 2021 season. Football teams are required to have three weeks and 14 days of practice before playing a game.

Whenever sports are allowed for area schools, athletic directors and coaches will be scrambling to put together schedules. DeBoard envisions many teams playing independent schedules because of the travel restrictions that would hinder leagues comprising of schools from multiple counties. He added that the Section will not allow schools to form new and temporary leagues.

“The goal at this point isn’t winning Section titles and league titles,” DeBoard said. “The goal is to get the kids out there in the field of play however we can do it.”

“There’s really no better avenue for kids to express themselves, release their energy, exercise, compete and be social as there is with high school sports,” Magni said. “It will be great for everyone’s mental health to be around their friends.”

Coronavirus safety measures will be followed during practice and competition.

Following direction from CDPH, the California Interscholastic Federation released an update to its guidelines for competition on Jan. 22.

Masks will be worn by athletes in the following sports: badminton, baseball, basketball, competitive cheer, field hockey, football, golf, lacrosse, soccer, softball, tennis, volleyball and wrestling.

Sports not required to wear masks are cross country, track and field, swimming and water polo.

“It will be nice to get out there and interact with the players,” said Rodriguez, whose team could start practicing on campus as early as Feb. 1. “We have a lot of space on the tennis courts. It should be easy to keep everybody apart.”

The CIF condensed three seasons of high school athletics—fall, winter and spring—into two seasons on July 22 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2020 spring sports season was canceled on April 1 when school districts extended campus closures through the end of the 2019-20 academic year to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Manteca Bulletin reporter Jonamar Jacinto and Turlock Journal reporter Angelina Martin contributed to this report.