EAST LANSING — There’s a chance.
If the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ three-week pause of organized sports to limit the spread of COVID-19 lasts as long as it said it will, the Michigan High School Athletic Association will plan to finish the remaining 90 football and volleyball games and host the state swimming and diving finals by the end of December.
That’s a big if, coaches have said. The MHSAA had the same plans for its winter tournaments it postponed in March over coronavirus concerns only to cancel them a month later.
In a Zoom press conference Monday afternoon, Mark Uyl, executive director of the MHSAA, said the association’s board of directors will meet Wednesday to craft a timetable to complete the fall season contingent on the MDHHS order ending Dec. 8.
“What I can tell you is that for all of our three sports, we will have a plan that completes those tournaments in the calendar year 2020,” Uyl said. “Certainly for us to try and push back later into the spring from right now we’re going to take the emergency order at its face value. We’re going to wait until Dec. 8.”
The director of the MHSAA took questions for more than a half hour the day after MDHHS Director Robert Gordon issued an emergency order to suspend play of organized sports for three weeks, along with closing high schools, casinos and restaurants to indoor service.
“We really have a challenge here over the next three weeks to do the right things to get our numbers back to where they were during August, September and early October,” Uyl said. “We want to give our kids a chance, this is what we got to do.”
Uyl said he wasn’t surprised at the order, and said it’s a different situation than in April when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order suspended in-person instruction in K-12 schools for the remainder of the year.
It’s also different because the MHSAA presented data to the media on game cancellations over the last two months, claiming that high school sports can be played and played safely amid a pandemic.
“In football we’ve had 94 percent-plus of our football schools being able to play each week,” Uyl said. “During our volleyball tournament, very similar stats of 94 percent-plus were able to play.”
But the data on football game cancellations available on the MHSAA’s website — which may signal a positive COVID-19 case on at least one team — tells a different story when plotted out over several weeks.
In playoff round one, 17 teams forfeited out of 575 teams (2.99 percent forfeited). In playoff round two, nine teams forfeited out of 288 teams (3.13 percent) and in playoff round three, five teams forfeited out of 144 teams (3.47 percent). Four teams forfeited the volleyball playoffs.
The rate increased each week and the largest percent change occurred on the week that ended this past Friday.
Uyl said if the order is extended, the board will reconvene, but the MHSAA is better prepared for the event of shutdowns than it was in March.
“What gives me a great deal of optimism is I do think that next spring is going to be able to be played if we were able to handle things outdoors in the fall this past year,” Uyl said. “It gives me great optimism that our spring is going to look that same way.”
There are a total of six games left in the eight-player football season (four semifinals and two championships), 28 playoff volleyball matches (16 regionals, eight semifinals, four finals) and 56 games in 11-player football (32 regionals, 16 semifinals, eight finals).
Suttons Bay (9-0) is among the eight teams still alive in eight-player playoffs.
“It’s unfortunate,” coach Garrick Opie said. “You know, you sit there and you work hard to have a undefeated season and try to make the best of a season and a shortened season to begin with. It’s definitely a tough pill to swallow.”
Opie said he understands why it makes sense to shut down the season at the end of the day — the three-week pause is about the health and safety of his players and their families. It was special to end on a win over 7-1 Gaylord St. Mary, but it does feel like the season’s unfinished with question marks.
He witnesses the disease that’s killed 246,000 Americans from behind the scenes in his day job, communicating with governments around the world on a daily basis to sell personal protective equipment to mitigate the risk of catching the virus.
“I see tribes that are in major pain right now, I see countries that are seeing resurgence of COVID and so forth,” Opie said. “Hearing from governmental officials and people that work with governmental officials on a daily basis, trying to wrap their arms around it ... It’s not a happy space, let’s put it that way.”