Sports will look different in Volusia County this fall, and exactly how they’ll look is still being decided, as teams across West Volusia rally to defeat a common opponent: COVID-19.
Seniors like DeLand High School’s Zachariah Banton are celebrating the decision to allow football, because the chance to play could be the key to getting into college.
“Seniors don’t get another chance; they don’t get another do-over, another year of eligibility,” Hillsborough County parent Jamie Kent told the Florida High School Athletic Association Aug. 14, when the board debated whether to allow fall sports.
Board Member Susan Tortora said the people she heard from were clear.
“My emails are full,” she said. “And 99.6 percent of them are asking us to give them a date, stick to it and start now.”
That’s what the FHSAA did: voting to allow fall sports beginning Aug. 24, but giving schools flexibility on whether and when to take part.
Fans may face limits on tickets and other restrictions, as stadium operators figure out how to keep those attending the games safe from the virus.
Volusia County public schools will start their fall-sports season later than usual, with the first football game set for Sept. 18.
Not everyone will play. Stetson University won’t have athletic competitions at all this fall. (See sidebar.)
The decision surrounding high-school football was a long time coming, with fans, students and coaches wondering whether they would see a normal season amid current abnormal circumstances.
After all, football is a contact sport, while some sports, like cross-country and golf, are low-risk enough to be largely unaffected.
For schools with stadiums on campus, it will be up to the schools to make rules for masking, social-distancing, etc., at the games.
At DeLand’s Spec Martin Memorial Stadium, a popular venue for high-school football, much is still up in the air.
DeLand Parks and Recreation Department Director Rick Hall said DeLand High School and the city will work in tandem to craft a plan for how to handle games and the stands, in accordance with CDC guidelines.
“It’s a difficult situation, and a difficult decision to make,” Hall said. “The No. 1 priority is the safety of the players, as well as anyone that’s going to be in attendance at the games. Volusia County Schools, DeLand High School, and the city, it’s their No. 1 priority.”
While DeLand High and the city try to sort out how to make Spec Martin safe for fans, many things have to be taken into consideration, like how the concessions stands operate and how a change in ticket revenue could affect the high school.
The budget is something that is being taken into consideration, according to DeLand High School Athletic Director Lance Jenkins.
“Usually at every high school in the country, football is a cash cow for the athletic department,” Jenkins said. “Part of that is the gate revenues; if you don’t have fans, you don’t have an athletic department.”
For now, the situation is changing day-to-day.
According to DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar, “There are more unanswered questions than answered questions.”
Apgar said the city wants to be a good partner to the high school, as they have a long-standing relationship, but ultimately wants to ensure the safety of the public at football games.
As an avid fan of DeLand High football, Apgar said, he may have to consider his own health.
“I will probably make some day-to-day decisions if there’s a particular spike in DeLand’s numbers. I may decide it’s a good night for me to stay home,” he said.
The mayor said the city and high school, also, may need to change the rules from game-to-game.
‘Extraordinary times take extraordinary measures’
The FHSAA decision on fall sports came with a caveat: If a school feels uncertain about competing in the state series due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school can choose, by Sept. 18, to opt out.
Schools that opt out are then free to forge ahead with calendars of their own making. For the schools that choose to stay in, the FHSAA plan is made to be flexible, including provisions for football that eliminate rankings, and match teams up based on a blind draw instead.
For now, Volusia’s high schools are all set to play against each other with the altered schedule, but this could change throughout the season.
Coaches and athletic directors stressed that the focus is first and foremost on the safety of the athletes.
DeLand High School varsity football coach Steve Allen said things have been difficult, but he hopes COVID-19 will provide a teaching moment.
“Just like everybody else in the world, I’ve tried to educate my kids on this,” he said. “I’m sorry to say that it’s real and that it affects more than us, and we have to have a bigger worldview than ourselves, even if that adversely affects us.”
Allen said that, like everybody, he’s tired of the virus, and that adjusting to wearing masks and practicing social distancing during athletic conditioning has been difficult.
Another notable difficulty? Due to COVID-19 safety regulations, for the first three weeks of summer conditioning the team wasn’t able to practice with footballs, for fear that touching a shared ball might be unsafe.
“For three weeks, we had no footballs. We weren’t able to go inside, we weren’t able to use weights at all,” Allen said. “Extraordinary times take extraordinary measures. You had to find ways to simulate things that will be pertinent. You can’t just run them for two hours.”
“It was weird,” said Banton. “It was like we couldn’t touch anything at that point.”
Banton said he and the other players were worried that the whole season would get canceled, and that if it did, some students would lose their opportunities for college scholarships.
He said even though things have been strange, and could change again, he’s glad the county decided to move forward with the sports season.
In Orange City, University High School Athletics Director Matt Weaver agreed the adjustments have been difficult, but he said the students are itching to get out and play.
“It’s going to look different because of protocols and sanitizing, and only a certain amount of people allowed in some areas,” he said. “But it’s going to look the same, because the kids just want to play and participate.”
On top of the FHSAA recommendations for masking when able and sanitizing frequently touched surfaces, Weaver said UHS will introduce neck gaiters to athletic uniforms for sports where athletes are close to each other like football, volleyball and bowling.
Weaver said the students won’t be expected to wear the gaiters during play, but while on the sideline and the bench.
“We’re doing everything we can to help out and get kids back out there,” Weaver said.
Local league will play, too
The DeLand Dawgs youth league has continued to play football while implementing temperature checks and as much social distancing as possible during practice.
According to Dawgs President R.J. Simpson, even with kids coming from as far as St. Augustine to play football, safety can be maintained.
“If we take extra precautions, we can keep this thing going,” he said.
The DeLand Dawgs played in a seven-on-seven youth-football tournament in Polk County on Aug. 15, and made it to the semifinals.
Their regular season, which has been pushed back several times, will begin in September.
Not everyone agrees
At all levels, people we interviewed for this story stressed that safety is the most important factor. But speakers at the Aug. 14 FHSAA meeting argued that they couldn’t just put a complete halt on all high-school sports for the next season.
FHSAA Executive Director George Tomyn said he met with 10 committees of coaches, athletic directors, and students to discuss a number of proposed fall start plans.
Many of the people he met with, he said, supported the proposal that was ultimately adopted.
The plan received some resistance from five of the FHSAA board members as well as the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, which objected to any plan that allowed sports before transmission trends in schools could be evaluated after classes began.
Stetson football sidelined
All of the conferences Stetson University participates in, including the Atlantic Sun Conference and the Pioneer Football League, have suspended competition for the upcoming season.
“From an athletic competition standpoint, at least for the months of August, September and October, we’re not going to have any athletic competitions,” Stetson Athletics Director Jeff Altier said. “We will have athletic activity, and even some team practices, but it will take us a little while.”
Altier, like the others, stressed that the safety of the athletes is the most important factor, especially considering the lasting impacts COVID-19 can have on those who contract it.
In order to allow a student back to practice, Stetson University has required two negative COVID-19 tests, as well as an antibody test. All of this is designed to determine whether students have or have had COVID-19.
The new rules came on the heels of five Stetson student athletes testing positive for COVID-19 in July.
Altier said the pandemic has presented him with a set of unprecedented problems.
“This has probably been one of the most challenging times of my professional career, and I’ve been the athletics director since 1996,” he said. “I’m not sure I have ever been challenged and written so many plans, only to have those plans torn up and rewritten again because of some new information. All my efforts can’t be getting them to compete if I don’t know it’s safe.”
— Noah Hertz