SVSJ commentary: WIAA, as it gets ready to more formally move forward with high school fall sports restart, has a lot of tough issues to consider, many which could result in loss of athletes

Time for another Sunday commentary, and we are discussing the current COVID-19 pandemic and its potential impact on high school sports here in Washington.

This past week, as we have been telling you, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, our state’s governing body for high school sports, delayed the start of the fall high school sports season to September 5, a two-week delay to the start of the season, as the state deals with a rise in cases of the deadly illness which has forced a pause in the state’s reopening plan. The WIAA, as we have also mentioned, plans on further, more iron-clad guidance after their next board meeting later this month, but the two-week delay is allowing the organization some time to figure out how best to proceed.

We trust WIAA Executive Director Mick Hoffman and his staff to work hard to preserve opportunities for student-athletes; they proved that already once with spring sports athletes, going until the last possible moment and the state’s early closure of schools in April to try to save spring sports for baseball, softball, track and field and other spring sports. So we’d expect the same for athletes this fall, including football, volleyball, cross country and girls’ soccer. But, as has been mentioned here and elsewhere, the WIAA is very powerless at this point; they have to act based on the guidance from state health officials, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal and Gov. Jay Inslee, so parents and others need to put pressure on them as opposed to the WIAA to ensure normal fall sports this fall at the high school level in Washington.

The WIAA’s job is not going to be a very easy one, as they have many different issues and factors to navigate, a few of which we want to discuss here more in full. All pertain to potential loss of student turnout.

-High school programs losing athletes due to multi-sport players forced to choose one sport: The Northwest Athletic Conference announced a delay in the start of their sports season for local community colleges to after the first of 2021 also this week, and there is some conjecture we are hearing in some quarters that the WIAA may end up following along those same lines, with cross country being a notable exception. And considering that it might be a safer bet to do this with a vaccine expected to be very close, if not out on the market, by then, school leaders may decide to take this approach in an effort to allow for sports to be played. However, the likely overlap of seasons due to the compressed schedule will cause a situation where multi-sports athletes at schools could be forced into one sport, costing other teams at the school those athletes.

Smaller schools in the 2A and lower classifications, such as Cedarcrest, could see this be a bigger issue for them, but larger schools like Mount Si, a 4A, are not going to be immune from it. For example, football’s Colby Ramsey also plays for the Wildcat boys’ soccer team, and this past season saw a pair of recently graduated seniors from Mount Si’s girls’ basketball and soccer teams – Izzy Smith and Joelle Buck – both play together on the two teams at MSHS, with Buck getting a dual college scholarship to play both sports at Pacific Lutheran University.

There is a long-held emphasis by coaches and administrators at the school level to encourage kids to play multiple sports, but schedule overlap this year could prevent that from occurring, and this is something the WIAA will look to avoid.

-High school programs losing athletes due to potential conflicts with out-of-season club programs: An issue that probably is not going to get the attention it deserves from the WIAA but should is the aspect of the potential for athletes to be forced by out-of-season club programs to choose between school and club sports this school year due to schedule overlap. It could especially be evident in volleyball, whose club schedule traditionally starts in late December or early January following the end of the high school season and which includes many tournaments out to Memorial Day weekend and beyond, some of which are out of town.

With the safety issues involving the sport and potential overuse of athletes between school and club play, there is a possibility the local regional governing office or some member clubs could institute such rules if a season overlaps, and if that happens, it should be expected many top athletes will opt for club play over school this coming season. Other sports with a club component where the seasons might overlap, including soccer, could also institute similar regulations, also with an emphasis on preventing potential safety issues due to overuse of athletes. So the WIAA, to prevent this, we believe needs to have sanctioning bodies for club athletics, such as USA Volleyball or US Youth Soccer, at the table as it figures out how best to navigate this uncharted territory. Additionally, top representatives of local club programs such as soccer’s Crossfire or Eastside FC or volleyball’s Kent Juniors, Sudden Impact or the Washington Volleyball Academy should also be allowed a chance to voice their input into these discussions. Do not view out-of-school club programs as competition, view them as an equal partner, and that will ultimately benefit student-athletes.

-High school athletes leaving Washington for other states: The announced move last night of Eastside Catholic boys’ basketball star player Nolan Hickman, which we reported on here earlier, is just the latest in a growing list of high-profile moves of star athletes, all from basketball, where the current COVID-19 restrictions and the shutdowns to youth sports in Washington, appear to have been a factor. And it is now becoming a growing concern in football, with Eastlake Coach Don Bartel discussing that potential in an interview last Wednesday with KJR’s Jason Puckett and Chris Egan during their morning radio show. We have been told off the record by a source of at least one player from a Kingco 4A high school contemplating a potential exit from Washington to another state should there be no football season, and we have also been told via Twitter by Mount Si college recruiting coordinator Myra Ozaeta she is also hearing of potential player movement as well should the football season be canceled here.

With Utah, the state Hickman will be heading to, announcing that high school sports will proceed as normal this fall last Thursday, that provides an option for families. But Nebraska also could be an appealing option, and they are already back open with football, with the state being host to a football all-star game yesterday that was attended by nearly 2,500 fans. Yes, as we’ve been telling you, they’re allowing fans to attend.

As we discussed previously, we don’t believe that there will be a mass exodus per se from Washington, but something about the potential Kingco 4A football player’s move did make us think a little bit. We have been told the player, if he does need to exit the state, would move in with extended family in the other state, and this also presents a option for families as well, as many high school athletes and their families here in Washington do have extended relatives – grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. – that live out of the state. Families could choose to allow their high school athletes to relocate out of state temporarily and live with those extended family members out of state, and that might satisfy necessary physical change of residence requirements in the other state without the athlete’s family needing to do that themselves.

With that said, if the Washington association does announce cancellation or severe rollback of season schedules, the potential for a mass exodus could be higher than we expect as a result. So the potential loss of turnout from that is also something that the WIAA will need to address, as this also will impact schools in terms of loss of actual student enrollment, and the resulting state money that comes with that.

A lot for officials on multiple levels to consider as they figure out the best way to move forward. With the expected announcement in about 10 days, families are now beginning the process of finalizing their plans should a cancellation or other drastic action be announced by the WIAA regarding high school sports. So we expect to see more of this, and everyone needs to be prepared, from high school coaches and administrators, on up to Gov. Inslee and Supt. Reykdal, for the fallout from any potential exodus of student-athletes from here in Washington. Again, as we’ve told you already, it may sound very crazy to some of you that families are going in this direction. Well, think again. The moves of Hickman, fellow EC hoopster Mjracle Sheppard and the Huard sisters (Haley, formerly at Eastlake, and Macey, formerly at Bear Creek School in Redmond) with this issue as a backdrop presumably in all of these show that it is happening now, and it’s only going to become larger as the decisions get closer.

We will of course continue to discuss this issue with you here in the Journal, but feel free to respond to this by replying here on the blog, or on our Twitter feed @snovalleysports.

Rhett Workman

About Rhett Workman

Rhett Workman is the editor of the Snoqualmie Valley Sports Journal. Workman is a veteran sports journalist, having covered Snoqualmie Valley sports for nearly a decade with the Snoqualmie Valley Record newspaper before starting up the SVSJ. Workman's coverage has earned the support and respect of Valley coaches, players, parents and fans, and the SVSJ continues the standard of coverage that Workman brought to the Valley Record.
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