While high school football teams are still months away from taking the field for any games or official practices, Justin-Siena head coach Brandon LaRocco was already hard at work late Monday preparing for the upcoming season.
He and an assistant had taken to a whiteboard on Justin-Siena’s campus to write out the proposed schedules and key dates, released at the start of the week by the California Interscholastic Federation and North Coast Section, in their entirety.
“It’s one thing to see it on paper,” LaRocco said of the proposed schedule, which features two seasons of sports instead of the usual three and features a football season that will run from December to April, among a litany of other alterations. “Still trying to get a grasp on the dates and what not, but it looks like we’ll be able to get a full 10-game season in with playoffs and bowl games and the whole deal.
“So that part is exciting and there is some optimism.”
After months of speculation and uncertainty surrounding the fate of prep sports in the upcoming school year as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on, the proposed calendar released on Monday finally offered some clarity as to what things may look like if conditions improve in the coming months.
The two seasons to be played in the NCS and CIF this year will be fall and spring. Fall sports in the NCS will start practicing on Dec. 14 with playoffs for volleyball, water polo and cross country scheduled to take place in March, while football teams on deep playoff runs may play into April.
There will likely be some overlap with the start of the spring season, which has start dates ranging from Feb. 22 to March 15. Fall, which will feature only four local seasons in the Napa Valley, is much quieter than the spring, which would feature 12 sports packed into a little over three months.
While there is still a long way to go until any sports get played this year, most local football coaches are just happy that there’s finally something to start planning for.
“It’s hard to plan for the rigor of a football season when it’s week-to-week, month-to-month, because you want to train your players in a way that they can peak at the right time,” said American Canyon football head coach John Montante. “If you don’t have that target date, it’s hard to do that. At least now we have these target dates and we have framework for what returning to school is going to be like.”
Those frameworks have also come into better focus over the last couple weeks, with most school districts in Napa County announcing an online start to the 2020-21 school year. Football coaches are taking that into consideration as they begin to plan out their next several months.
There will likely be plenty of conversations between coaches, athletic directors, school administrators, and league and section leadership taking place in the coming weeks as every party tries to organize and prepare for these potential seasons.
Some of those conversations are already starting to take place. Napa High football head coach Richie Wessman said on Monday that he had meetings on Tuesday lined up with the Napa Valley Unified School District to begin discussions about health and safety procedures for potential future practices, as well as with the Vine Valley Athletic League to discuss their league schedule.
“We’ll probably be pulling back from the conditioning pods we’re doing in summer,” Wessman said Monday. “The way I read the language on the rules, we’re able to have summer-type practices once we’re back at school to some degree and kind of be able to do what we would normally do in a summer, and that’s perfect because it would give us time to build up the right way and get guys in the weight room and be able to do X’s and O’s and stuff.
“So that’s kind of the plan, is see how the meetings go tomorrow and then more than likely we’ll back off for now and then whenever the time is right, whenever we pass the correct criteria, we’ll start our summer-type practices.”
Summer conditioning programs have been ongoing since June for most local schools. But with a timeline now in place, most football programs in the county will be joining Napa High in winding down workouts before possibly resuming them after school starts.
“With sports pushed so far back, there’s no reason to add additional contacts to people if we’re not going to be having sports until January,” said St. Helena football head coach Brandon Farrell. “We can easily start whenever time we get back to school in September or even October and start working out again and be pretty resilient.”
Not out of the woods yet
Like other coaches, Farrell is happy about the prospect of a season, but he also has a different perspective coming from one of the smaller high schools in the county.
“This is a big-school football plan and it’s really unfortunate for small schools that rely on multiple kids to play multiple things,” he said.
High schools like Napa, Vintage and American Canyon, which all boast enrollments of over 1,500 students, have a much larger pool of athletes. Schools like Calistoga, Justin-Siena and St. Helena, which have enrollments under 600 students, don’t have the same luxury.
The NCS and CIF are allowing student-athletes to compete in multiple sports during a season, but how feasible that will be remains to be seen. Some longtime multi-sport athletes may have some difficult decisions ahead.
“The reality of it is if you are to go by that plan, some hard decisions are going to have to be made by small schools to be able to field teams and then have to find teams to play because not everybody is going to be on the same page,” Farrell said.
With a less-crowded fall season, football players may be spared from some of those more difficult decisions. But even at larger schools, spring athletes may be forced to pick and choose.
“(Football) kids, yeah they’re going to have some choices to make for sure,” Montante said, “but what about the kid who wrestles and throws shot put? Because those sports are going to happen concurrently. Or what about the kid who plays baseball and basketball. The kids who play winter and spring sports are going to have more choices to make.”
Farrell said he hopes this schedule is not the end-all-be-all and that the section can make alterations to accommodate for the needs of smaller schools.
That’s also not the end of potential issues that could arise from this new schedule. The CIF and NCS also suspended a number of bylaws to allow student-athlete to participate in non-school sports, meaning baseball and basketball players could also be playing for their club and travel teams at the same time as they’re suiting up for their high school teams.
Montante said he’s the seen the good and the bad of club sports, but the main thing he’s worried about is the mixing of two potentially very different ecosystems.
“I’m very comfortable saying that COVID is not a hoax, and we’re in this situation because a lot of adults bricked and the kids are suffering for it. But where the high school coaches and teams are doing a lot of safety requirements to make sure we’re doing our part, I don’t know that that’s going on with clubs,” he said. “We want to get these kids back to competition. I want to coach my sport. I want to teach my classes. But we’ve got some people out there, for one reason or another, they’re not upholding their end to beat this thing and we need to start and we need to align.”
On top of that, myriad other logistics also need to be worked out, like transportation, use of fields and officials for games.
“We’d be in playoffs right when soccer and lacrosse are both trying to get on the field, and that’s not to mention track,” LaRocco said. “It’s going to be insane.”
Wessman also added that Napa High may need to reschedule some of its nonleague games against opponents in the Sac-Joaquin Section, which has a later start date for football than the NCS. Other schools may have to do the same.
Coaches also acknowledged that while having a schedule on the calendar is exciting, it won’t matter if the pandemic is not under control by season’s start. Regardless of the NCS and CIF schedules, school districts will still be following the guidelines provided by local county health officials.
“That’s the whole big piece of this,” LaRocco said. “We have the dates but if we’re not moving in the right direction by then, then it’s all for nothing.”
Regardless of whatever future issues may arise, football coaches agree that the plan in front of them is better than the alternative of having the fall sports season canceled outright, a route that has been taken in some states.
“It’s going to be a little bit different, take some getting used to. But you know what? It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a great experience,” Montante said. “Boats don’t sink by the water around them. Boats sink from the water that gets in them, and we just have to band together and do what’s best for our kids and our athletes. Let’s get schools open the right way and let’s get playing some sports.”
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Contact Gus via phone at 707-304-9372 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustGusMorris.