Have a question about how the 2020 football season (and, to an extent, other fall sports’ 2020 seasons) will work with a pandemic in play? You may find your answer here in this Q&A-style cheat sheet.
Hillsborough County Public Schools recently released its Return to Play documents, which outline how the county plans to balance playing fall sports in 2020 and mitigating COVID-19 transmission risks. It won’t be easy and it requires us all to rethink a lot of things we’ve all gotten comfortable with, but the county’s Fall Sports Task Force and Athletics Department are the ones making the rules around here.
Rather than write at length about the decisions made, what went into them and how we even got here in the first place, we wanted to make this a little easier on everyone. So, we’re using this little section of the 2020 Football Preview to answer questions you may have about how things are going to work and what you can do as a fan to enjoy the high school sports experience in what’s likely a completely different way than you’re used to.
Q: Can you make a long story into a short one and remind me how we got here?
A: I can try. Our area teams couldn’t play their spring games because of COVID, so the most anybody could do was go outside for conditioning workouts, lift weights and get in some positional drills for a while — in several phases enacted over time — without pads or full use of the ball. That put pretty much everybody light years behind their usual schedule. The FHSAA board started having serious discussions in July about when and how to restart the season so everyone could practice again, but those meetings were largely abysmal for those of us watching from home and no official guidance or direction came from them until mid-August. So, we restarted practice on Aug. 24, Hillsborough County opted to restart regular-season competition this week and now we’re picking up the football regular season in what was originally supposed to be Week 3.
Q: If we’ve already missed so much time, how is this season even going to work?
A: We’re literally just going to jump right in and finish out the remainder of the schedules. Some counties started playing last week, some will start this week and others will start afterward. There will be some wiggle room for teams to add a game in the week after their scheduled Week 11 contest, but others will get a play-in game for the state series. All games our teams missed are just canceled, but they can be made up later if both parties want to do that.
Q: What happens if an athlete or coach tests positive for COVID?
A: They and anyone on the team who was recently in close contact with them has to quarantine for 10 to 14 days. That can be as small as a position group or as big as an entire roster. And that player is not coming back to play, or that coach is not coming back to coach, until cleared by a physician. Remember what I said earlier about teams having freedom to make up canceled dates? Hillsborough High School and Jefferson High School just had to do that: they both had a player test positive and rescheduled their Sept. 11 season-opening game to Nov. 6 because of it. Their scheduled Sept. 11 opponents, Gaither and Chamberlain, will play each other tomorrow night.
Q: Do you think (insert team here) will make the playoffs this year?
A: Yes, because everyone who opts in for the State Series by Sept. 18 is guaranteed a playoff spot.
Q: Wait, what? It’s that simple?
A: Yes, and it gets even weirder than that. There are no districts this year, so the only trophies anyone will win before getting to regionals or states are rivalry trophies. And out here, unless something new slipped under my radar, that’s just the Redman Cup. The new RPI system that debuted last year (and cost Plant City a playoff spot by a microscopic percentage point) is going bye-bye in favor of a blind draw for seeding. The FHSAA will do all that on Oct. 26.
Q: If there are no more districts, how are they gonna group schools together for the state series?
A: After that Sept. 18 opt-in deadline, the FHSAA will redraw all classes besides 1A Rural, which does not affect us at all. Our teams will likely be in the 5A-8A range, and the FHSAA said that means “if there are more than 16 teams in your region, Nov. 13, 2020 will be a play-in State Series game. Example: Seed 16 will play seed 17. If there is no play-in game, you may play another opponent that week. Home team will be determined by coin flip.” So, assuming our teams all stay in that class group, we have regional quarterfinal games on Nov. 20, regional semis on Nov. 27, regional finals Dec. 4, state semis from Dec. 10-12 and state championships from Dec. 17-19.
Q: Can’t wait to go watch my team! Well… I can still go to games, right?
A: It’s complicated.
Q: Isn’t everything?
A: So you can go watch a game in-person, but that’s assuming certain conditions are met. If you’re an administrator, you’re good to go. For the rest of you, there’s a catch. Every athlete, band member and cheerleader participating in an event is allowed to invite up to four fans to buy a ticket online by no later than the Wednesday before that specific game. If you’re a card-carrying booster, you don’t need to buy the ticket — you just need the invitation. Those fans will sit together in their own assigned “pods” in the bleachers. If you’re a fan of the away team, you can only get such a privilege from the athletes because your band and cheerleaders won’t perform at the game. You show digital proof of ticket purchase at the gate, go through security measures and you’re in. Hopefully you brought your face mask, because Hillsborough County Public Schools requires you to wear it while on school property. You’ll know where to sit because everything will be marked and spaced apart. Here’s the example provided by HCPS, which is supposed to be a mock-up of Plant City High School’s field:
Q: How am I supposed to get excited about the season if I can’t go watch any games?
A: Actually, you can still watch the games. All you need is an Internet connection and an NFHS Network membership. NFHS will broadcast all games (and we’re not just talking about football here) live on its website, NFHSNetwork.com, and you can pay either $9.99 monthly or $69 annually to watch whatever you want. You can watch high school sports from all over Florida and the rest of the country that way, too.
Q: Cool, cool. So, how do you think (insert team here) will do this year?
A: I know I normally write a column with my predictions for each upcoming season, but our teams lost so much time and restarted practice so soon before the start of the regular season that it’s really hard to say without having a preseason, any spring games and other important offseason activities. I’m gonna borrow something all of the coaches have told me: we’re gonna get through this season “one day at a time” and see where the road takes us. I do have one wish: because media have been assigned to stand in a specific area near the end zone and I can’t roam around the sidelines snapping photos like normal, I really, really need our teams to score touchdowns in whichever end zone we’re next to. My camera lens can only zoom so far out. Anyone who wants to solve that problem and donate $16,299.99 plus tax to the Observer to get us an 800mm Nikon telephoto lens from Best Buy’s website can get in touch with Managing Editor Sarah Holt at firstname.lastname@example.org.