Uncertainty surrounds fall season for high school sports

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald The junior girls’ field races down one of the soccer fields at Prime Ministers’ Park during the 2019 SHSAA provincial cross country meet.

As the reopening of schools continues to be a massive talking point around the province, the resumption of high school sports during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic remains an ever-changing situation.

That’s especially true in Prince Albert, as the Carlton Crusaders and St. Mary Marauders programs wait to find out when athletics will resume.

“I’ve been fielding lots of questions from all of our coaches as everyone has been curious about what’s going to happen,” Carlton athletic director Tim Strom said. “Things are changing from day-to-day and we’re all trying to stay on top of that.

“Unfortunately, a lot of that right now has been a bit of a guessing game when it comes to answering those questions. Whatever information that the SHSAA (Saskatchewan High Schools Athletic Association) has sent out to the public is the same information that I have.”

“Everyone’s taking a cautious approach right now,” St. Mary principal Mark Phaneuf added. “Whether it’s the operation of a school, a sports team or an extracurricular program, we’re also responsible for the general health of society itself. That’s the kind of ramifications this has.”

The SHSAA had previously announced last week that they were planning to start their seasons of play on Sept. 8 (golf) and Sept. 14 (cross country running, football, soccer and volleyball) with extended training programs and mini-leagues starting at the end of the month.

However, that plan soon changed when the Government of Saskatchewan officially announced on Monday that they were going to push back the start of the school year.

In a release that came out on Thursday, the SHSAA revealed that cross country running, football and soccer would start on Sept. 28, while volleyball would not get underway until Oct. 13.

Statements in the Sports and Activities Guidelines (released by the Government of Saskatchewan) indicate the likelihood of transmission between individuals participating in sport, physical activity and recreation in an indoor setting is significantly higher than in outdoor settings,” SHSAA executive director Lyle McKellar said in the press release.

“The delayed start time for indoor activities was considered to allow more time for those school divisions that choose to offer volleyball as part of extra-curricular programming to effectively develop protocols and plans around sanitization and hygiene related to student use of their facilities.”

The SHSAA also announced that the provincial golf championships, which were originally going to be held on Sept. 25-26 in Kenosee Lake, have been cancelled.

Unfortunately, similar to badminton and track & field in the spring, the pandemic has forced the Executive to cancel a season of play impacting many students who are typically involved in school sport,” McKellar said in the press release.

“The Executive believed that the restrictions related to the re-opening of schools would not allow for a safe and effective qualification process leading to a provincial championship event.”

The release also said that athletes can only choose one sport to play in this fall, instead of competing in multiple ones.

In terms of actual athletic contests between schools, the SHSAA will be able to sanction modified competitions but are not able to provide a playoff structure for provincial championships at the moment.

“This is going to be one of those years where everything is going to look at lot different, especially as programs like our senior boys volleyball team won’t be going to Alberta for tournaments,” Phaneuf said. “We just have to remain patient and work with the organizations to determine what’s best for all of us.”

“If we follow the guidelines, we may have some mini competitions in October, which would limit us to playing St. Mary or some of the other schools within our health region,” Strom added. “With that said, it’s hard to know where everything is going to go as it seems to change every couple of weeks.”

A major change occurred on Wednesday as the Saskatoon Secondary Schools Athletic Directorate (SSSAD) announced that they had cancelled their fall sports season.

“It came down to, obviously, a number of different factors but, most importantly, the health and safety of the students, officials, volunteers and anybody involved with delivering SSSAD sports programs,” SSSAD consultant Jud Heilman said to Darren Zary of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix Wednesday.

“Senior leadership in both divisions decided that, at this point, we’re not going to offer any fall extra-curricular sport. We’re just in that holding pattern, like a lot of people are, kind of waiting on guidance from the chief medical officer, senior leadership in each public and Catholic school division, just kind of hoping we get the opportunity to provide some sport for our students as we kind of progress to an eventual return.”

That decision impacts all of the sports teams at Carlton and St. Mary, with the biggest change coming for both football programs at they compete in the SSSAD league.

“When one sport district makes a decision like that, you could see other school divisions looking at that and start to make their plans based off of what the SSSAD has done,” Strom said.

“It obviously affects the football programs, but when you look at the soccer and volleyball tournaments that take place at our schools, we often see schools from Saskatoon take part in those events. Obviously, tournaments weren’t going to be taking place this fall due to the guidelines that have been put in place, and I think the Saskatoon schools kind of saw the writing on the wall.”

As everyone waits for the start of the upcoming school year, Phaneuf and Strom have both been in contact with fellow factuality members and students as they prepare for what’s next.

 “In the texts that I’ve had with some of our students, are hopeful that something is going to happen, but they seem pretty realistic that it’s going to be a wait and see approach,” Strom said.

“We’re obviously more concerned here on the back to school side of things and making sure that everything is safe for students and staff. Once we figure out a model that works best for education, then we will start to focus on getting sports back underway.”

“Everyone at St. Mary knows how important extracurricular activities are for our school, but it’s all a moving target at this point when it comes to when everything can start up again,” Phaneuf added.

“When you look at the number of people that can be involved and the restrictions that are in place within each activity, the question that we all ask ourselves is how can we do this in a safe manner.”