After revitalizing the program this past fall, Grant Thompson and the Niceville football team were ready and excited to begin preseason workouts on Monday. That’s not going to happen anymore.
Late Thursday evening in an emergency meeting, the Florida High School Athletic Association board of directors voted 11-4 to postpone the 2020-21 fall sports calendar start date until Aug. 24 at the earliest as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge across the state.
Niceville’s athletic director and football coach, Thompson said he expected the move earlier on Monday when the board instead voted 10-5 on an earlier motion, from Wewahitchka athletic director Bobby Johns, to hold the start date at July 27 before reversing course three days later.
"I was surprised that the first meeting went the way that it did, honestly," Thompson said. "We were prepared as best we could. We would have liked to get some answers sooner, but whatever comes down from the state or the county, we’ll try to have a plan for.
"We hope that we can all work together and keep the season and get something for these guys, so they can play."
Assuming a span of at least two weeks for tryouts and practice, the earliest fall sports competitions would begin during the week of Sept. 7.
In the meantime, Thursday’s motion from Doug Dodd, a school board representative from Citrus County, authorizes schools currently participating in summer conditioning workouts to continue under the current protocols. Additionally, the motion calls for FHSAA executive director George Tomyn, FHSAA staff, the sports medicine advisory committee and the association's other respective committees to develop a plan ahead of an additional, in-person meeting of the board at least one week prior to the new fall sports start date to reevaluate the situation.
"Everybody’s kinda in limbo right now," Thompson said. "Not just football."
At Monday’s meeting, Dr. Jennifer Maynard, a sports medicine specialist at Mayo Clinic, encouraged the board to delay the start of football and volleyball, calling them "not medically safe."
Maynard said schools should begin those sports only after empirical data indicated a decrease in new cases and positivity rate, as well as a rolling average positive test percentage of 5% or lower through a 28-day period. She reiterated that assessment Thursday, though she said the 5% threshold allowed for a minor degree of flexibility.
Other fall sports such as bowling, cross-country, golf and swimming and diving were categorized as "acceptable low risk," though they, too, are delayed following Thursday’s vote.
Predictably, the FHSAA’s decision has brought on a wide range of opinions.
Navarre football coach Jay Walls said he thought the FHSAA "did the right thing" in postponing the fall sports season.
"We have to do what’s right for the safety of the kids and everyone involved," Walls said. "That’s No. 1."
Conversely, South Walton athletic director Phil Tisa was upset the decision did not allow for any flexibility among communities the pandemic had not adversely affected.
"I think the Panhandle schools are being painted with the same brush as Miami-Dade and Orange County and the big metropolitan areas," he said. "It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution."
Moreover, student athletes could potentially miss out on valuable scholarships without the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities," Tisa said.
"It doesn’t matter about the state series game or things like that," he said. "What matters is the kids being able to get athletic scholarships. What matters is them having that opportunity to gain back any sense of normalcy and have options.
Crestview athletic director Tim Hatten said he sees both sides of the argument. He agreed"it’s kinda tough to go against the opinions of medical experts," and safety was of paramount concern but made a point to say that shifting one date creates new problems for the school calendar.
"There’s just so many different variables when you start making decisions like that, and you’ve got so many districts that also make independent decisions (about how and when to return to play," Hatten said. "It’s very complex. Far more complex than anybody can really imagine on the outside."
Hatten also said he, his players and his coaching staff were understandably disappointed.
"We’re like everybody else," he said. "We want it to be normal and unfortunately it’s not anything close to normal anywhere. It’s not normal at Publix, it’s not normal at Walmart, it’s not normal anywhere you go, so why should it be normal at football practice or volleyball practice or in schools?
"I think we’re just gonna have to wait until we get in school and make some decision after we get large gatherings and see what happens."