TRAVERSE CITY — Another hiccup hit the start-and-stop winter sports startup Wednesday.
COVID-19 epidemic orders from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services pushed back the start of five winter sports, but allows five others to proceed as previously scheduled.
“We have a lot of anticipation coming into this season, so it’s disappointing,” Mancelona boys basketball coach Brian Sheridan said. “It’s tough on the kids. That’s the worst part.”
Led by Jayden Alfred and three other core returnees, Mancelona is expected to be one of the top teams in northwest Lower Michigan in their division, but the Ironmen must wait until at least Feb. 1 to begin playing games.
The five contact sports delayed a week include boys and girls basketball, hockey, wrestling and competitive cheerleading. Those sports can begin non-contact practices starting Saturday, but can’t play games through at least Jan. 31.
Girls gymnastics, girls and boys bowling and boys swimming can proceed as normal, with contests eligible to begin Jan. 23. Alpine skiing already started on time.
“I’m glad we get to skate, I guess,” said Traverse City West hockey coach Jeremy Rintala. “I know the kids are anxious to get back on the ice.”
The Michigan High School Athletic Association and the Michigan High School Hockey Coaches Association are meeting Thursday to determine what activities can take place at non-contact practices.
Complicating matters for high school hockey teams — or two in particular — is Howe Arena closing starting Jan. 24 to become a COVID-19 vaccination site, Rintala said. Howe houses both TC Central and West, meaning all three Traverse City teams (including the Bay Reps) must share Centre Ice Arena along with numerous youth and adult leagues for hockey, curling and skating.
“It’d be a terrible year to lose an entire season,” Rintala said. “I think all three TC team will be very good this year.”
MHSAA assistant director Cody Inglis said the Representative Council meets Thursday to determine more plans for moving forward. That could include moving the winter playoffs back or overlapping winter and spring sports, among many possible courses of action.
Inglis said a better working relationship with MDHHS would help matters. The most recent orders came with little warning, MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl said in a radio interview Wednesday.
“It would be extremely helpful,” said Inglis, a former athletic director at TC Central and Suttons Bay. “It has changed how we operate. We’ve had to be very reactionary. That’s not the best way to go forward. We need some type of collaboration.”
Inglis said the MDHHS reported that 99.6% of antigen tests given to teams remaining in the football, volleyball and swimming postseasons have come back negative. That accounts for around 12,000 results, as teams were required to test three times a week for athletes to stay eligible to play.
The pilot testing program was also supposed to pave the way for winter sports to move forward without masks.
“It confirms our thinking that sports done the right way can be done safely,” Inglis said.
Participants in gymnastics, bowling and swimming will be required to wear masks except when actively participating in gymnastics and swimming. Spectators are capped at 100 persons in school gyms or 250 in stadiums and arenas, per MDHHS orders.
“We are glad to have three more sports join skiing in returning to full activity, but we understand the disappointment and frustration on the part of our athletes and coaches whose sports are not yet able to restart completely,” Uyl said in a press release. “We will continue to adjust schedules to provide all of our winter teams as substantial an experience this season as possible, as part of our greater plan this school year to play all three seasons to conclusion.”
Spring sports teams, as well as ones from the fall that weren’t part of the pilot program, can resume non-contact workouts and conditioning Jan. 16 with four players at a time.
Traverse CIty West boys basketball coach Sanders Frye said the team already scheduled practices for Saturday and Sunday.
“For the most part, our coaches are taking as much interaction as a staff with the kids as possible,” Frye said. “I’d like to get as much of an extension (to the playoffs) as we can, but I’m also cognizant that the spring sports lost their entire season last year.”