By Alex Maminakis

The Journal

At least for now, there is a plan in place to play high school sports this fall in South Carolina, although they’ll start later than usual.

The South Carolina High School League Executive Committee met Wednesday morning and approved the SCHSL’s proposed plan to move forward with fall sports, along with an adjusted schedule that offers continued flexibility because of the ongoing complications due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seneca quarterback Cole Bay (10) jumps up to celebrate with teammate Matthew Crane after Crane scored a touchdown for the Bobcats during a game last season. (Savannah Blake | The Journal)

Commissioner Jerome Singleton presented the plan to the executive committee Wednesday, and it passed with a 14-2 vote.

Under the new plan, the start date for all fall sports practices will be pushed back from July 31 to Aug. 17. Games in all sports could start being played within four weeks after the Aug. 17 start date.

Football would play a seven-game regular season starting on Sept. 11, beginning against region opponents, while playoffs would begin Oct. 30 with a four-round playoff schedule rather than the typical five rounds.

If determined one week before, based on the external factors of COVID-19, that the proposed start date is not possible, then the anticipated start date would be delayed to no less than one week later. Each time the start date is delayed, the length of the sports season, as well as the playoffs, will have to be evaluated to determine the best option for each sport.

Singleton said the strength of the new plan is its flexibility to be able to salvage fall sports, due to the unknown nature of COVID-19. However, he acknowledged that the starting dates can only be delayed so many times — Sept. 21 would be the latest that football practices could start without invading the winter sports season. The proposed plan ideally works if schools can stay open in the fall and if positive COVID-19 tests begin trending downward.

By no means is anything set in stone.

“If we find that we can’t start on the 17th, we can start on the 24th. If we can’t start on the 24th, we can start seven days later, and we just move everything back in conjunction with our start date,” Singleton explained. “Dec. 4 and 5 is our last day that we traditionally end fall sports — the first week in December. So at some point, when we can’t play region games to ensure that we have representation from each region in the playoffs … if we can’t justifiably do that, we’ve got to make some additional decisions.”

Also in the new plan, girls’ tennis and volleyball would begin their seasons against region opponents, as their postseason berths are dependent on region standings. In girls’ golf, cross-country, and competitive cheer, qualifier events will determine advancement to the respective state finals.

In football specifically, while each team will get seven regular-season games, once they have played everyone in their region to determine playoff seeding, they would be allowed to fill up the remaining games on their schedule with non-region opponents. Additionally, as Singleton explained, because there are traditionally five rounds in the playoffs, those schools that don’t make the playoffs this year would be given a two-week period in which to pick up an additional game at the end of the season in lieu of a first-round playoff contest.

“I am happy with the plan from the SCHSL,” Seneca athletic director Andy Bay said. “I think it gives our athletes a chance at a season and allows them to do it safely. I like the flexibility of the plan that allows moving the sports to another season if we have to stop playing this fall.”

While the executive committee approved the SCHSL plan Wednesday, it did so after rejecting another plan proposed by representatives from Lexington School District One. That plan, which was voted against 16-1, proposed four 10-week seasons, with the sports labeled as low-to-moderate risks of exposing athletes to COVID-19 being played in the fall, while high-risk sports, like football, be played in the spring.

Many committee members said they liked parts of the Lexington plan, but didn’t get fully on board with swapping the seasons around.

Singleton explained why his plan kept football, in particular, in the fall, despite a spring season that might have less of a risk of spreading the virus.

“Because we have no idea of knowing if that’s the case,” Singleton said. “What we want to do is put the opportunity right here in front of us and continue to move (the start date), if we have to.”

Daniel football coach Jeff Fruster is more concerned about his team being able to play at all, rather than the date that they’re allowed to take the field, and he was encouraged by the action the high school league took on Wednesday.

“There were a lot of definitive answers given today, most of which is that the high school league is doing everything in their power not only to ensure safety, but to make sure these kids get a chance to play the sport that they’ve been working so hard to train for,” Fruster said. “I’m totally ok with a condensed season. We’re going to get to play the games that matter (region games). … There were a lot of positives said today. And I understand that the date was pushed back to Aug. 17, but again, football at any point and at any time is ok with me.”

As schools around the state and around the country try to determine whether they will return to class this fall with face-to-face instruction or virtually, Singleton said that in South Carolina, as long as face-to-face instruction is offered at schools — that is, as long as schools are open — student-athletes will be able to participate in sports regardless of if they choose to attend class in person or online.

“Our constitution and bylaws say that if you are a member student of the school, then you’re eligible to play,” he said. “That’s the only standard it has, is you’ve got to be a student of the school that you represent. It doesn’t say you have to be present.”

The high school fall sports schedule is still very fluid, as is the schedule of the entire country over the next few months with regards to COVID-19. But Wednesday’s plan put forward by the SCHSL was a step toward South Carolina student-athletes playing sports this fall, which is the ultimate goal of players and coaches across the state.

But, as Singleton made sure to mention, the plan only works assuming virus conditions improve throughout the communities, and he encouraged everyone to continue staying smart and safe.

“It’s really going to depend on how well things occur in the general community as to whether we can move forward to be able to play these games at the schools,” he said. “Help us help each other.”

Adjusted fall sports schedule (tentative)

Football

First game: Sept. 11 (begin with region play)

Maximum regular-season games: 7

Playoffs start: Oct. 30

State finals: Nov. 20

Girls’ Tennis and Volleyball

First contest: Aug. 31 (begin with region play)

Girls’ tennis and volleyball playoffs start: Oct. 19

Girls’ tennis and volleyball state finals: Oct. 31

Girls’ Golf and Swim

First contest: Aug. 31

Girls’ golf qualifiers: Oct. 19

Girls’ golf state finals: Oct. 26-27

Swim state finals: Oct. 10 and 12

Cross-Country

First contest: Aug. 31

Cross-country qualifiers: Week of Nov. 2-7

Cross-country state finals: Week of Nov. 9-14

Competitive Cheer

First contest: Sept. 12

Upper/Lower qualifiers: Week of Nov. 2–7

Cheer state finals: Week of Nov. 9-14

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