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High school sports officials hopeful for 'sense of normalcy' at venues this fall

Posted at 10:53 AM, May 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-24 10:53:55-04

CINCINNATI — Anderson High School football coach Evan Dreyer can't wait for his team to start summer workouts June 1.

That anticipation is paired with a hope that all student-athletes can participate in front of larger crowd sizes later this year. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced most COVID-19-related health orders will lift on June 2. Ohio has mobilized vaccination resources to administer the shots to children 12 years and older.

"I think our student-athletes and parents can’t wait for the fall," Dreyer said. "I think the biggest difference is that our student section can’t wait to get back into the stands. We have kids who support each other in all athletics."

While the Ohio High School Athletic Association prepares to complete its spring state championships in the next few weeks, coaches and athletic director have an optimism for summer that didn't exist a year ago.

"I believe everyone is looking forward to the fall and a sense of normalcy," La Salle football coach Pat McLaughlin said. "Hopefully, for the players' sake, we can have full stadiums and get back to Friday nights like they were prior to the pandemic."

Dreyer said he can't wait to communicate with the Anderson students, whether they are involved in band, cheer or the student section on Friday nights.

"As we move forward, our coaches and players are going to have a greater appreciation of how much our community and school love to support each other," Dreyer said.

OHSAA executive director Doug Ute has cautious optimism, too, for the 814 member schools.

He said the attendance restrictions this school year offered a reminder of how important high school sports is to not only student-athletes but to families and fans of that school.

"I think when August hits, our kids come back in early August and begin their sports," Ute said. "And then late August, as we open, the gates get opened and come one, come all. I hope our communities realize how important it is to support their local schools and the student-athletes there and get out and physically support them and cheer them on. That's the best-case scenario there, but again, with this virus, we certainly — I never, ever think we're ever out of the woods."

No one can deny the unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The uncertainty of the past year's fall and winter seasons made perseverance the common theme.

"The thought on this school year is, 'I can't believe we made it,'" Wyoming High School athletic director Jan Wilking said.

No high school athletic department was immune to the daily challenges of health and safety protocols, quarantines, district pauses, unexpected rescheduling, attendance restrictions and financial considerations the past nine months during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It was hard being the person that always had to remind people, 'Here are the restrictions. Here are the limits,'" Lakota West High School athletic director Scott Kaufman said. "'Here is your code for a ticket.' It was hard being that guy. It was hard not taking that home at night. Hard waking up in the morning thinking, 'OK, I've got to go through this again.' The only thing that kept me going was the kids are still on the field or the kids are still playing."

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Despite the arduous journey, athletic directors are keeping their fingers crossed with another school year on the horizon.

"I am incredibly hopeful that we will be back to full capacity starting in the fall," St. Xavier athletic director Brian Reinhart said. "I have a feeling the level of excitement is going to be off the charts, especially building on the amazing success we had this school year."

Wilking, a member of the OHSAA board of directors, said she turned in Wyoming's athletics budget for next school year and is hopeful attendance will return to what it had been prior to 2020.

"I think if the Reds are kind of the beacon of hope for all of us in what they were able to do in opening stuff back up," Wilking said. "I hope we get close to that. That would be the goal for sure."

The OHSAA and its member schools had to make plenty of adjustments associated with the pandemic this school year. Some of those adaptations could remain in the high school sports landscape.

The OHSAA board of directors approved a plan in April for 16 football teams in each of the seven regions to qualify for the postseason instead of 12.

That was in part because Ute and the OHSAA received enough positive feedback after every participating team was eligible for the postseason thanks to the shortened regular season during the pandemic in 2020.

"I'm not sure we would be talking about this if we didn't have COVID," Ute said. "Probably wouldn't be. But, just the amount of coaches and fans and people have told me, 'Hey, that was just great that kids actually got to be in a playoff situation.'"

There will be additional discussions around athletic departments regarding the benefits of the continuation of online ticketing and online streaming of events, too.

Wyoming athletic director Jan Wilking said the school's plan to continue with an online ticketing plan entering next school year. She said there will be lessons learned during this school year that will carry forward into the future.

"I think there will absolutely be things that we learned in COVID that we carry forward," Wilking said. "I think ticketing — I would not be surprised if many schools — and this is Wyoming's plan — is to go full online ticketing. There are so many reasons why that works well. There is a couple reasons why it doesn't work well. But, I think its benefits far outweigh the negatives. I think the streaming isn't going away which is great. I mean, we have the technology and we have it set up."

Greater Cincinnati schools simply hope to have those type of options for the 2021-22 school year instead of limitations due to the pandemic.

"Seeing where we're headed, I feel like I'm in my first year again," Kaufman said. "I'm just so excited to get the summer workouts started, get some (football) 7-on-7s going, get some soccer leagues and basketball leagues rolling and get me to Aug. 1. Let's get to week one and let's start the fireworks. It's long overdue."