By Trey Williams
The “new normal” will be anything but when Unicoi County High School athletics resume on June 1.
Basketball players won’t be the only athletes experiencing heat checks. The football team won’t have 11 players in a group. And who knows, baseball players might be doctoring baseballs with hand sanitizer.
Yes, when sports begins a so-called regular TSSAA June calendar, nothing about it will seem normal thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Going primarily on the recommendations of CDC guidelines, Blue Devils sports will practice and condition for three weeks in June with social distancing, plenty of intermissions for wiping down equipment and players’ and coaches’ temperatures taken on a daily basis.
“Everybody has to have their temperature taken,” Unicoi County athletic director Michael Smith said. “We’ve gotta ask five questions … from the CDC. Do you have an unexplained cough? Do you have any symptoms? Have you been out of the area in the past few days, and if so, where. …
“For June, that is going be the every day (routine). Some of it is going to become the new normal or whatever. Coaches coaching in masks has been mentioned. That was in the NFHS (National Federation of State High Schools Association) guidelines. They’re not saying that will happen, but they’re just looking forward and saying this might have to happen.”
The TSSAA dead period will remain due to so many coaches and players planning vacations for that period, which will be June 22-July 5 this year.
In fact, the guidelines are so stringent that Smith said he and Director of Schools John English essentially told many Unicoi County coaches that didn’t want to do anything in June not to fret.
“When Mr. English talked to the coaches first,” Smith said, “before we even told them what the guidelines were, and he was telling them, ‘It’s still June and a lot of you don’t start up for a while. Some of you may think this is just too much to even worry about trying to do to get an hour or in or whatever.’ But for the most part I think most of ours are going to start June 1, as long as we get the thermometers in. They’re supposed to be here next week.”
Smith said football would probably have five or six groups in the morning and perhaps four in the evening. One group can work inside in the weight room while another is outside on the field.
Basketball players can’t get within six feet of one another, as is the case for all athletes in June.
“You’ve gotta clean all the equipment (constantly),” Smith said. “In basketball, we’ll go through a drill with our kids where they pass or shoot and all that, and then we’ll probably take a quick break and wipe off all balls.”
Athletes can’t use locker room facilities.
“They have to come dressed,” Smith said. “We can’t have them in there, and we can’t have them just standing around talking. They have to have six feet between them. …
“It is going to make it rough. But people that want to work – coaches and players that want to try to get better, it gives them a chance to get in the gym or the weight room or wherever to start getting back at it after being off for two months.”
Smith is relieved sports can resume in any fashion at this time. Even a couple of weeks ago, it seemed like a good possibility that nothing would happen prior to July at the earliest.
“That was definitely worrisome,” Smith said. “You kept hearing rumors. And then the TSSAA came out and said the TSSAA calendar is the calendar, and whatever your school system will let you do, you can do. They knew with all the guidelines there wouldn’t be a whole lot we’d be able to do, but they didn’t want to say we couldn’t do anything until July.”
Returning in such a cumbersome fashion in a time of great uncertainty could make an athletic director consider retirement. But Smith never considered anything but rolling with the punches.
Sullivan East athletic director John Dyer, whose retirement will be official June 30, did get out at a good time, he noted.
“Coach (John) Dyer is still working till the end of June,” Smith said. “So we’ve had a bunch of AD meetings on Zoom. And Coach Dyer, during one of those, was telling us like, ‘I really feel bad for what you all will be enduring.’
“He knows he’s getting out and he doesn’t have to fool with it, but he’s been in on all the meetings because he’s still working at East. He said, ‘I want you all to know I appreciate your all’s friendship and I’m going miss you, but I’m not going miss what you all are getting ready to go through with what’s happening.’”
Smith would still be surprised if football isn’t played this fall.
“I know the TSSAA has said, you know, if it’s possible to play anything, we’re going to have football for sure,” Smith said, “whether they have to push it back or cut down how many games you have or cut back who makes it into the playoff or limit the number of people that can come to games. Wearing masks has been mentioned. Football is the one that’s the main money thing to help everybody out. If they have anything, they’re going to have football.
“I’ve even heard them talk about moving football to the spring and having baseball in the fall. One reason on that is baseball didn’t get to play in the spring. You don’t have as many people at baseball games and softball games. But that’d be tough doing football in the spring and then turning around and doing it again in the fall, I would think.”
It was encouraging to see all of the coaches eager to resume right away. If all goes well, more restrictions could be lifted for July. And, as Smith noted, the virus could necessitate reversing course.
“We know this is a daunting task with the guidelines,” Smith said. “But about everybody said they’re starting on June 1. It’s going be a pain for everybody, but it’s going to be worth it knowing we’re doing everything we can to prevent people from getting sick.”