High school athletic departments across the state have an official roadmap to follow for the 2020-21 school year.
During a special-called meeting on Thursday afternoon, the Virginia High School League Executive Committee voted 33-0 in favor of adopting the “Championships +1” model that solidifies the condensed scheduling format for VHSL-sponsored athletic and academic activities during a school year that has begun under the burden of COVID-19.
The final version of the model is nearly identical to the draft the VHSL released on Aug. 24 and features only a few minor tweaks.
Intact is the original timeline that features a Dec. 7 start date and runs through June 26, as well as the commitment to holding regional and state tournaments across all sports and activities. The winter sports season, scheduled to run from Dec. 7 through Feb. 20, will be the first to compete, followed by the fall (Feb. 4-May 1) and the spring (April 12-June 26). In the model, teams will play approximately 60% of a typical schedule.
The calendar allows one week each for regional and state tournaments, the latter of which is trimmed to four teams and eliminates the state quarterfinals. Each region, with the exception of cross country, will advance one team to their respective state tournament.
Teams that don’t qualify for their regional tournament are allowed to play an extra game against another non-qualifier, hence the “+1” in the model’s name.
Sports that feature individual competitors have seen their state tournament fields pared down. Wrestling state tournaments will feature eight-man brackets and will be one-day events. State-qualifying standards for indoor and outdoor track and swimming and diving won’t be used this season, and state qualifiers in those sports will instead be determined solely by regional performances. In golf, one team and three individuals will advance to the state tournament from each region (female golfers will qualify for the girls state championship through zone qualifiers and can automatically qualify by placing among the top 8 at the boys state championships).
One alteration to the initial draft changed the state-qualification standards for cross country. The final plan states that two teams plus three individuals will advance to the state cross country meet from each region (in the initial draft, only one team and five individuals advanced to the state race).
The dead periods for each season were also modified to be more uniform across the board, and the start date for sideline cheer was moved up a week to Dec. 7 (teams can cheer starting on Dec. 21 but can’t do any stunting until Jan. 6 due to the sport’s 20-day minimum practice requirement).
The final schedule model isn’t without its hiccups.
Though the state championship date for indoor track is listed as Feb. 13, VHSL Executive Director Billy Haun noted during Thursday’s meeting that the league did not yet have a venue – and in turn, a date – set for the Class 1 and 2 state championships, while Class 3 through 6 are scheduled to compete on March 1 and 2. In the latter instance, given the schedule’s format, there is a severe overlap with the football season and schools could potentially play as many as two football games before the indoor track and field championships are held.
Two Executive Committee members representing regions in Class 1 and 2 also expressed concern about the overlap of theater and forensics in the adopted model, though Haun said the VHSL would work with those two classifications to come up with a solution to address those concerns.
A notable proposed modification to the “Champions +1” model was brought forth by Region 1A rep Mike Myers prior to Thursday’s vote. Myers said his region wanted an eight-team regional playoff in football, though such a move would require alterations to football’s regular-season schedule – which runs from Feb. 22-April 2, during which teams will play six games in a seven-week span – and concerns regarding equity across all regions were raised in response to the proposal.
The Executive Committee had the option of tabling a final vote on the model until Myers’ proposal could be further explored, though Jon Crutchfield, Franklin County’s principal and the Region 6A rep, made a motion to accept the model as it was, triggering the Executive Committee’s unanimous vote of approval.
At the start of Thursday’s meeting, Haun addressed a “Let Them Play” rally held in Richmond earlier this week and the criticism the VHSL has received for not allowing sports to take place this fall. He said emails, most of which were in reference to football, that the VHSL has received from critics featured four “basic concerns”: frustration that student-athletes have been competing in club sports yet aren’t allowed on a school playing field, mental and emotional strain of not being allowed to compete in high school sports, missed scholarship opportunities and the fact that other states across the country are allowing high school sports this fall.
Haun presented data that he said came from the National Federation of State High School Associations on Thursday morning that showed that of the 51 high school athletic associations across the country, 14 are holding fall sports with no limitations, 29 are playing with modified schedules and/or programs and eight are holding no fall sports competition. He further noted that 14 associations are playing football this fall with no modifications, 19 are playing a modified fall football season and 18 are not playing football at all this fall.
“We understand and appreciate their (the parents’) passion and their advocacy for their children and their students. We understand that,” Haun said. “Losing last spring season was very difficult and now not having competitions in the fall is difficult. We, the VHSL members and the Executive Committee are career educators. Along with parents, we want to do what’s best for our approximate 190,000 student-athletes, our 318 member schools who participate in our activities. We sponsor 27 athletic activities and 23 academic sponsored activities. I just want everybody to understand … that we all feel the same way with that.”
Citing data he said he gathered from the Virginia Department of Education, Haun further noted that of the 132 school divisions in the state, 10 were holding instruction entirely in-person, 25 were holding partial in-person instruction, 25 are entirely hybrid, four are “partial hybrid” and 68 are “fully remote.”
VHSL Executive Committee Chairwoman Shannon Butler stated during the meeting that there is a “common misconception” among parents who believe that if the high school league voted to resume playing sports next week, teams would be competing on Monday. She noted that the VHSL does not hold authority over school divisions and localities when it comes to allowing student-athletes back on the playing field.
Crutchfield added that many parents who oppose the VHSL’s fall sports shutdown aren’t taking into account the bigger picture.
“Superintendents have so much on their plate right now and getting in school safely is the No. 1 priority,” said Crutchfield, adding that he thinks the people involved with coming up with the “Championships +1” model feel good about the plan. “I know that there’s people out there that want us to do something different and faster and those kinds of things but fast is not always right.”