BLOOMINGTON — In a surprising turn of events, the Illinois High School Association is pushing forward with high school basketball this winter.
One day after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health announced basketball was moved from a "medium risk" sport to a "high risk sport," seemingly making a winter season a long shot, the IHSA board decided to go forward with the season in a special Board of Directors meeting on Wednesday.
The season is set to begin on Nov. 16 for practices with games on Nov. 30. The board also voted to move wrestling from the winter season to the summer season, which will run from April 19 to June 26.
"That's a blessing for us," said JT Welch, a Central Catholic High School senior basketball player. "We were hearing things were not going our way. We've been trying to stay positive and keep working like it's going to happen. I feel we have a chance of that happening now, so that's awesome to hear. We're ready to go."
The board will follow the guidance of the IHSA Sport Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) and will allow boys and girls basketball to begin practices, per IHSA Return to Activities 2.0, on November 16. Contests can begin on November 30 within an Illinois COIVD Region or within a conference.
"This is absolutely earth shattering news," said Dustin Fink, a member of the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. "There were maybe 1 in 1,000 chances of this happening and it happened."
Central Catholic boys basketball coach Jason Welch, who is JT's father, said the news for "super exciting and I couldn't be more excited for kids across the state of Illinois."
"The reality is a lot of these guys have worked a lifetime to get in here and have a senior year. But beyond that, the kids need that," said Jason Welch. "It's from a mental health standpoint. It's a real positive.
"There's a lot of lessons they learn from the game of basketball beyond wins and losses."
As a part of the mitigation plan, masks will be worn by all players, coaches, and officials during play. Boys and girls basketball teams will follow team limitations, allowing a maximum of 31 games. It will become a local school decision to determine if a school will allow their basketball teams to participate following the guidelines developed by the SMAC.
"After diligent discussion, the board has made the decision today to follow the recommendation of the IHSA SMAC as it relates to basketball," the IHSA stated in its release. "The board remains considerate of rising COVID-19 cases in Illinois and understand the importance of adhering to safety guidelines for the good of all citizens.
"However, the board has not been presented any causal evidence that rising COVID-19 cases make basketball more dangerous to play by the IDPH or any other health organization nationally or internationally. On the contrary, the IHSA has been looking to bordering states who have sponsored both medium risk and high risk sports in the fall that have noted a low incident rate of COVID-19 spread."
Olympia girls basketball coach Courtney Hoffman has been through this before.
Hoffman also serves as the Spartans' softball coach. She watched the dismay of her players when spring seasons were first put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March and then later canceled.
When Hoffman told her basketball players Wednesday about the IHSA's decision, they wanted to start practice immediately.
"I'm so excited that hopefully it's working out," said Hoffman. "But it's in the back of my mind still from softball season they can take it away at anytime. I'm cautiously optimistic for the season, I guess."
Hoffman said it has been a "rollercoaster" of emotions in a 24-hour span.
"We heard Governor Pritzker's decision (Tuesday) and immediately I'm thinking how do I tell my kids again, how do I tell my seniors again?" she said. "I keep running through the heartache we had to go through last spring. I was bummed I would have to go through that again with my kids."
Normal Community boys coach Dave Witzig was grateful there is "more hope today" about having a basketball season than there was Tuesday.
"We just think the IHSA had a good plan, The Return to Play, and a safe plan. I think it can work and other states are showing it can work," said Witzig. "I know there's a lot of pressure on everybody to make the right decision. I think the IHSA has a really good plan that we can follow and can work."
El Paso-Gridley boys coach Nathaniel Meiss had "resigned" himself to not having a season.
"Based off the history of how things were going over the course of time over the last few months it seemed like there wasn't going to be anything," he said. "I was kind of thinking: What I'm going to do?"
Players have been required to wear masks during "contact days" this fall. While that isn't what they would prefer, everyone seems willing to wear masks to be able to play.
"It's like playing at elevation. They have to get acclimated," said Meiss. "Fortunately we've been doing it the last month or two so you've had a little bit of acclimation. I think it's doable if we're required to wear masks. But as far as your stamina, that's obviously something you're going to have to worry about subbing a little more than normal."
"We've scrimmaged and at the end of 10 minutes it changes how we play the game a little bit, but the girls said we would play in anything in order to play," she said. "They're so excited to be able to play the mask is just a side note. We'll deal with it. It's harder for them to breathe and things like that. Coaching the game is a little different. The subs will be in and out a lot more and being aware of watching the kids and how they're doing with their breathing and stuff."
The IHSA's statement said there were many factors in making their decision to go forward with the basketball season.
"Mounting challenges, from increased mental health issues among our students to a shrinking calendar that limits our ability to move sport seasons this school year, were instrumental in this decision to move forward with basketball as scheduled. We see our students regularly leaving the state to play sports, or covertly continuing to play locally. Students can be better protected in the high school setting, and the board remains steadfast that playing under IHSA rules and SMAC mitigation is the safest way to conduct athletics at this juncture.
"Illinois is a large and diverse state, and the IHSA membership is reflective of that. We understand that this decision will impact each high school and district differently. Some schools who remain in remote learning may not be able to start winter sports on time, and we feel for those in that situation. However, we have also learned that we cannot continue to look down the road to a season that may never come.
"Contact days for our teams this fall have been an incredible boon to our students’ well-being. We fear for the mental health of students who attempt to traverse a long winter with no athletic outlet available. So much about dealing with this virus has been learned in the past eight months, and this decision will grant the membership the opportunity to apply that knowledge during their basketball season."
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25
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