TRAVERSE CITY — Pickford rebuffing his offer of free COVID-19 testing surprised Bryan Newland.
A powerhouse football team dealing with an outbreak in the school didn’t want to be tested. Positive tests would jeopardize the team’s playoff chances.
“The community made that their priority, rather than fighting the pandemic,” Newland said. “It’s a shame, because it doesn’t have to be an either/or.”
How northern Michigan schools dealt with COVID-19 outbreaks as they relate to varsity sports vary greatly, and Pickford wasn’t the only school that’s tried to do whatever it could to keep state championship hopes alive as long as possible. Two northwest Lower Michigan programs in particular — Kingsley football and Leland volleyball — saw those championship banner goals fade as coronavirus cases crept into schools.
Newland, the Bay Mills Indian Community chairman, tendered the offer to use the tribe’s medical facilities and testing capabilities in mid-October, when coronavirus cases surged in the Upper Peninsula, as was the case around much of the state at the time.
The Upper Peninsula town less than 40 miles north of the Mackinac Bridge canceled school as it dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak. Someone involved with the athletic department called Newland a day before a game with Rapid River to ask if they could test football players. Newland obliged.
“We wanted to play our part in the community, so we said sure,” Newland said.
Newland opened the facility and prepared to test a small army of high school football players and coaches.
“Nobody showed up,” Newland said. “We never got a call canceling until later in the day, even though we scrambled to make it happen.”
The defending eight-player football state champion Panthers forfeited the game later that day, just the powerhouse program’s fourth loss in as many years.
The next week, Pickford was scheduled to play Brimley, where Newland’s son is the quarterback. Newland again reached out, sweetening the pot by offering to bring a mobile facility to Pickford. Still, nothing.
The Bays ultimately forfeited the eight-player game over concerns that Pickford wasn’t addressing potential positive COVID-19 cases on its football team.
A month later, the Panthers had only played one more actual game, beating Newberry 63-7 to set up a battle with one-loss Inland Lakes and the right to ultimately take on defending state finalist Suttons Bay in the state semifinals.
That game never happened — and Suttons Bay is on its way to the state championship game after Inland Lakes forfeited because of an outbreak of its own this week — but not without a fight.
As cases spread in the school and numerous football players were quarantined, Pickford tried to hold on until the last minute to salvage the Inland Lakes contest and preserve a shot at back-to-back state championships.
Pickford scheduled an emergency school board meeting Nov. 12, the night before playing the Bulldogs, with four-and-a-half hours notice, even though superintendent Angela Nettleton stated “I still do not feel that it should be played at all” in an email to the seven board members. Nettleton canceled an earlier game against Rapid River, and received considerable blowback from the community, multiple sources said.
The school board met, with only one item on the agenda — whether or not to allow 13 football players to leave quarantine for the game the following day. The motion passed unanimously, 7-0, to allow students to break quarantine to play football.
Earlier in the week, Pickford asked Inland Lakes to host the game instead. The Bulldogs agreed, but backed out the morning of the game, with athletic director Lewis Robinson emailing Nettleton and athletic director Mike Collins to say “Our school board and superintendent are not comfortable with hosting this game.”
“Knowing that your district/coaching staff is claiming that many of your players had little contact with a certain player is ridiculous at best,” an Inland Lakes player’s parent emailed Nettleton the morning of the game. “We all know what locker rooms are like. We all know what practices are like. And to believe that your entire team and coaching staff are not at risk is almost laughable.”
Inland Lakes superintendent Brad Jacobs wrote a pointed email to Collins and Nettleton the morning of the game, stating “to say that we now have a full-scale crap storm here is an understatement,” and continuing to say “we have contacted the MHSAA because we feel we have been put in a bad situation of choosing between the safety of our athletes and giving our kids an opportunity to play.”
The email went on to state, “We feel like the choice has been made by Pickford to put football ahead of the health and wellness of the students and families ... and that is not sitting well down here today at all.”
That email went out at 9:30 a.m.
Just moments before MSHAA assistant director Tom Rashid’s email, a Pickford parent emailed Pickford principal Kyle Rairigh and Nettleton. “What concerns me now, as a nurse, is the Boards willingness to ignore health department recommendation during a global pandemic ... and put a football game above the safety of our children” and continued, later saying, “I am appalled at the blatant disregard shown by the Board last night.”
Rashid emailed Rairigh, Nettleton and Collins less than an hour and a half later, stating “a school, even through Board of Education action, may not override the health department recommendation in an MHSAA event. Based on these findings the MHSAA football tournament game with Indian River-Inland Lakes will not take place.”
Kingsley’s school board also voted to go ahead with a game despite an outbreak in the school and on the team.
Two players tested positive and six were quarantined when the school board met Nov. 12 to discuss the fate of the next day’s game against fellow undefeated Reed City for a Division 6 district championship that could put the Stags within three wins of the school’s first state title since 2005.
The board voted 4-3 to continue with the contest.
Earlier in the week, six Kingsley players were asked to test. Two came back positive, three negative and one refused. Thirteen students and one staff member were deemed close contacts. A coach, later revealed to be head coach Tim Wooer, also had a positive test that week.
“Keith, should I call a meeting of the whole board tonight at 7?” school board president Tony Temple asked superintendent Keith Smith in a text message.
“It’s not really a board decision but I don’t mind,” Smith responded.
The Health Department advised all Kingsley coaches to quarantine through Nov. 26 — which not only covered the Reed City game, but also would have extended through the day before the state finals started.
The Stags had several close calls on the way to an 8-0 record.
Sault Ste. Marie had a positive test in a JV player after playing Kingsley on Oct. 16.
Benzie canceled a JV game with Kingsley the following week after two positive cases — one who was a football player — resulted in numerous players out because of contact tracing. The Huskies would later need to call up JV players to fill out the varsity roster for a playoff game at Grayling. The Huskies and Stags played in varsity action Oct. 23, with Kingsley winning 36-20.
“What was the final number of football players out for y’all?” Kingsley athletic director Mitch Miggenburg asked Benzie AD Steve Graetz the night before the Huskies and Vikings played.
“A lot,” he replied.
Graetz texted Miggenburg Oct. 28, saying, “Health Dept is gutting my team...”
Kingsley still held out hope of playing. The board’s OK was a formality. The Health Department didn’t have enough time to finish contact tracing before game time, so Kingsley officials started their own effort.
“If we can’t get contact tracing done game is canceled, per MHSAA,” Smith texted Grand Traverse County Health Department health officer Wendy Hirschenberger at 10:47 a.m. the morning of the Reed City game.
The board’s decision didn’t last long, however, as another coach developed symptoms and another player who hadn’t previously been labeled as a close contact to any other, tested positive.
Hirschenberger said she had a meeting at 12:30 p.m., and would get back to Smith afterward. Smith texted at 12:27 p.m. before she could reply, saying “We just made the call to shut it down.”
Miggenburg emailed Rashid at 12:13 p.m. Nov. 13, informing the MHSAA that the Stags decided to not play that night.
Reed City would eventually forfeit Saturday’s regional final round because of a COVID-19 outbreak at its school.
Benzie Central reported its first student with a positive COVID-19 test result the evening of Friday, Oct. 23, the night Benzie played at Kingsley in football. The football player didn’t play in the game because of an injury.
Superintendent Amiee Erfourth informed staff the following afternoon. Two cross country runners were quarantined that Sunday for contact tracing and a second student — a male cross-country runner — tested positive Oct. 26. Four classes that the two positive cases had attended were moved online because of contract tracing.
On Oct. 28, a volleyball coach tested positive. That same day, Graetz informed varsity football coach Jason Katt that 11 members of the football team wouldn’t be available for the Huskies’ playoff game at Grayling. Katt later said those 11 players represent 13 of the team’s 22 starters on offense and defense.
A media member emailing Graetz about whether the Benzie-Grayling game would take place as scheduled received the following reply: “We have isolated our Covid-positive student-athletes and quarantined those student-athletes who are considered close contacts based on the contact tracing conducted in conjunction with our health department. We are headed to Grayling for healthy and safe football tomorrow night.”
Grayling won that game 47-12 as the Huskies called up junior varsity players and still had less than 10 players on the bench while 11 were on the field.
That Thursday, the cross country regionals in all four local divisions scheduled to take place at Benzie get moved to Buckley, which had to tackle putting on a new COVID-safe event with two days notice.
An Oct. 29 email from Michelle Klein at the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department indicated 11 students were infectious, the earliest on Oct. 18. Jamie Leyland of the BLDHD emailed Oct. 30 identifying three more at the high school.
Benzie started limiting cross country practices to only the 10 runners who would represent the school at the Nov. 6 state finals.
The Huskies didn’t complete in volleyball districts after a coach and one athlete tested positive.
Documentation indicated 75 students and staffers were quarantined during the outbreak.
Frankfort reported its first positive test result Oct. 28, and another the following day.
The Panthers had athletes and coaches sign waivers taking away any liability in the event someone contracted COVID-19.
An email went out Oct. 30 informing parents that a Frankfort football player tested positive for COVID-19. A similar letter went out to volleyball parents Nov. 1, also stating a player had tested positive.
Superintendent Jeff Tousley emailed volleyball coach Becky Miller Nov. 1, informing her “In the best interest of the health and safety of our players and coaches, the 2020 volleyball season must come to a close.”
Athletic director Dave Jackson emailed the MHSAA the following day, informing of the forfeiture in volleyball districts, as well as the football team’s playoff game against Johannesburg-Lewiston.
On Nov. 3, Frankfort reports its first positive test of a staff member, as well as its third in a student, another member of the volleyball team.
By mid-November, Frankfort had more than 50 students in quarantine.
Frankfort received a first-round playoff forfeit from Saginaw Nouvel in a week when both schools had a reported COVID-19 case. A Saginaw Nouvel parent emailed Jackson asking Frankfort to forfeit first so Nouvel could play in the second round because the school’s quarantine could be over by then. Nouvel superintendent Cormac Lynn replied to the parent that Frankfort didn’t have a say in how it played out.
Leland’s outbreak came at about the worst time for the school’s elite volleyball program.
The Comets had to pull out of of the MHSAA playoffs in regionals, forfeiting a regional championship match to Mesick.
Superintendent Stephanie Long emailed the school board at 8:10 p.m. Nov. 11, the night before Leland was to take on the Bulldogs.
“We have six staff in addition to (redacted) in quarantine as a result of their direct contact with a positive volleyball related case.”
Nine adults were in quarantine, including two coaches, plus the entire volleyball team. A player became symptomatic the morning of Nov. 11, and another was a probable positive after both parents tested positive.
Three other Leland athletes were also in quarantine, as the school went from 13 quarantined students to 44 in one day.
Leland, which had one soccer player test positive before the season even started, played the volleyball districts without two players, posing with cutouts of the missing players in team photos after capturing the district championship.
Long — who had to quarantine herself in October because of contact with a COVID-positive worker on a school construction project — appealed twice to the MHSAA to be allowed to play Mesick at a later date, because sports had been put on pause in the meantime and the Comets would be out of quarantine by the time the postseason resumed. The MHSAA refused, and the No. 3-ranked team in Division 4 saw its season end.
Traverse City Area Public Schools emails out a press release each time a confirmed school-related positive COVID-19 case occurs.
The fairly standard “TCAPS Announces Positive COVID-19 Case” email, with changes here and there for the particular school impacted, has gone out 33 times since September, including 12 since the start of December. (Releases started going out with the district’s second case, reported Sept. 27, 2020.)
TCAPS has dealt with many cases related the schools, but overall it hasn’t been a big factor in sports.
Traverse City Central was forced to delay a district soccer game when an outbreak was announced, turning around just as the Trojans team arrived in Midland for the contest.
Central also ran cross country pre-regionals and regionals with several key runners in quarantine, but had them back for the state finals.
TC West’s soccer team had a positive case during the season, but the player quarantined from the team and no other issues arose.