High school football in Tennessee may still come off without a hitch in 2020, but Monday’s news of a COVID outbreak with the Miami Marlins reached beyond the borders of professional baseball.
The Marlins had their game postponed Monday against Philadelphia because of at least 13 positive tests for the virus within the team over a 72-hour period.
And while it is a different sport and a different level, the shockwaves rattled their way to Northeast Tennessee. However, baseball’s woes aren’t necessarily a doom-and-gloom harbinger for high school football in our state.
Ultimately the decision will likely rest in the hands of the school systems, and some might choose to play.
Science Hill athletic director Keith Turner said the Hilltoppers would be willing to play even if many other school systems were not.
“That could be the case as some systems may take a different approach,” Turner said. “It could mean we have to play somebody twice or even more. But I’m OK with it as long as the kids get to have a season.”
Like many other athletic directors, coaches, and administrators across the state, Turner said not playing is risky business because of the potential negative impact on student-athletes. He pointed to Georgia, which stated its plans to move forward with a full season that begins on Sept. 4.
“Georgia is going to play even if it starts school remotely,” Turner said. “I totally agree with them. They feel kids need sports and what they offer. Think about what kids have gone through the last five months with no sports and most churches shut down. What will the lasting impact be on kids down the road?”
Turner pulled from his own experiences to see how important these decisions are.
“It’s not just about playing, but also the positive influences of the coaches and people associated with the teams,” Turner said. “I can look at the impact my pastor and coaches had on my life. It could have gone a different way without them. You take away coaches, preachers, youth ministers and teachers, and what is the impact? I’m not ultimately a decision maker, but I don’t want to get down the road and look back and say, ‘I wish we hadn’t done this.’ ”
Turner said he would be on board with Science Hill playing football even if the opponents were few and far between. When asked if the Hilltoppers would play if only 10 other school systems in the eastern part of the state were willing to line up, Turner didn’t hesitate.
“We would,” he said. “We are just hanging and waiting and preparing. Coaches are good at adapting. Give us a set of guidelines and we will make it happen.”
Guidelines are an interesting part of the equation. There has been a lot of focus on the average case rate and its value in deciding whether to return to school. Getting back in the classroom is part of the conversation for playing sports. But Turner said the case-rate numbers should be crunched further to assess school-age infections.
“We need to start looking at kids’ infection rates,” Turner said. “The infection rate regionally may be one thing, but how many of those are school-age kids? Maybe there should be a change in how we look at this, and the health department came out with new information Friday.”
As for what high school football fans can do, Turner joined in the call for everybody in the area to work together.
“If everybody gets locked in and does their part, I think you will start to see numbers going down,” he said. “Even the kids need to do their part and stay at home more.”
One potential problem the TSSAA needs to address before games begin is further guidance on how to handle potential COVID-canceled games.
For example: On a given Monday, Team A finds out Team B has several kids testing positive for COVID and may not be able to play Friday’s region game. On Tuesday, Team A finds out it has several cases. But both teams withhold the information, waiting to see if the other team will back out first because the team that says it can play will be awarded a region win for playoff-seeding purposes (according to the 2020 TSSAA Football Contingency Roadmap).
Part of the problem is there are no current guidelines for how many positive tests mean a team can’t play. Different school systems will undoubtedly handle that number differently. Some may say one positive test is too many. Others may say you can play if you can field 25 players. What constitutes an “outbreak” at the high school level?
What kind of backlash will school administrators face if a Team A “loses” a key region game with one positive case while Team B “wins” despite having 10 or 15 cases.
Does a cancellation need to be required by the TSSAA if a certain percentage of positive cases is reached by a team?
“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” Turner said. “I’m sure the Board of Control will have to convene again to talk about different things.”
Under the TSSAA’s Hybrid Option, two area schools’ schedules could be impacted by a delayed start to the season.
If practice doesn’t begin by Aug. 3, Elizabethton would lose its Week 7 game against William Blount. The Cyclones would have the option of playing Knox Fulton, scheduling someone else, or having an extra open date.
No area schools’ schedules are impacted if practice doesn’t begin by Aug. 10 or Aug. 17. If practice doesn’t begin by Aug. 24, Unaka would lose its Week 11 game against Sunbright. The Rangers could play Oneida, schedule a different team, or take an extra open date.
If practice doesn’t begin by Aug. 31, the TSSAA will reevaluate its options.
Science Hill standout Cole Torbett has been invited to play in the Prep Baseball Report 2020 Future Games.
Torbett, a left-handed pitcher, will represent Team Tennessee in the games that will be played Aug. 1-3 at LakePoint Sports Complex in Georgia.
Players will participate in a pro-style workout and three games. All games will be available via live streams, and are expected to be accessed by college coaches across the country. Each site will collect data on players using Blast and Trackman.
Torbett, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound rising junior, boasts a fastball in the mid-80-mph range.