On Monday, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) Football Committee nearly unanimously recommended to postpone Connecticut’s high school football season until the spring due to the pandemic, despite conditioning set to start in less than a week.
The committee–made up of athletics directors, superintendents, principals, and coaches–issued the recommendation after the CIAC released new guidelines on July 31 giving fall sports the go-ahead to start prepping for the season. However, the CIAC emphasized repeatedly that the guidelines are “fluid” and subject to change as recommendations, case data, and health information is revised.
The Football Committee is among several sports-specific committees the CIAC created to make more informed recommendations for each sport under the new guidelines. Though the committee itself cannot make a formal decision to delay the season, this recommendation will go to the CIAC Board of Control, which, according to Gametime CT, will meet to discuss the recommendation Wednesday at 2 p.m. According to that same article, 13 states have already postponed their high school football seasons, with some delaying the start of other fall sports as well.
The committee’s recommendation comes just a week before football players are set to start conditioning on Aug. 11. Under the current guidelines, teams would start conditioning in cohorts of 10 to 15 players, and start playing games on Sept. 24. The current plan curbs practices to specific guidelines, including limiting close-contact practice as much as possible. The season would be shortened to six games limited to local regions and only held on weekends.
Wilton High School athletic director Chris McDougal, who had previously proclaimed his confidence about fall sports viability, emailed a statement to GOOD Morning Wilton saying the 2020 Football season is now largely a wait-and-see situation. He added that since any action on the recommendation would be done on a state level, there is not much the community can do to impact it.
“The committee was made up of athletics directors, superintendents, principals, and coaches. I am sure their number-one focus was the safety of the student-athletes and coaches. We need to remember this is a statewide decision, not just a community decision. I am happy they didn’t recommend to cancel but to postpone to the spring. We will have to wait and see what that will look like.”
Is Switch to Spring Necessary?
This year’s WHS team captains, Kiel Polito, Matt Gulbin, Brian Cipri, and Michael Coffey, were notified about the recommendation by their head coach, EJ DiNunzio.
The players have been successfully engaged in cohorted summer conditioning for the past five weeks. McDougal said to his knowledge, “none of our players contracted COVID during this time,” and praised the team for doing a “great job” following safety guidelines. The captains agreed that Wilton was taking safety seriously, and thus don’t necessarily feel deterred by a fall-start.
“Of course, safety of the people comes first, but so far Wilton Football has followed every rule and will continue to follow every rule the CIAC has set for us,” Polito said. “As a player I don’t feel threatened for my safety because of the precautions we have been taking and will continue to take.”
“We are all fighting to get back on the field,” he added.
Head Coach EJ DiNunzio said that none of his 12 coaches hesitated about returning, even when he pressed them to make sure they were absolutely comfortable. “They said, ‘Coach, this what we do–we coach kids. We teach life lessons. I want to be on the field,’” he said.
Similarly, Ryan Masterson, the president of the Wilton Warrior Gridiron Club and parent of the team’s quarterback, said though he understands the state’s need to take precautions, he feels comfortable with a fall season, especially given the current successful conditioning. Moreover, he said his children have been able to compete in large, regional lacrosse tournaments this summer. He doesn’t think football should be an exception.
“This isn’t a zero-risk situation regardless, whether you do it in the spring, whether you do it in the fall. The reality is there’s probably not going to be a fully-loaded vaccine spread and delivered to everyone by the spring. So are we really just kicking the can down the road?” Masterson said.
“The numbers right now are very low,” he continued. “Connecticut, the governor, [and] the local community have done a great job of keeping the numbers low. So if there’s ever a time to go, you would think you’d want to do it now before you do get that kind of winter uptick which we anticipate happening.”
Surprisingly, DiNunzio praised the committee’s recommendation for a spring start as “wise and prudent.”
“I am fully 100% behind the idea of football starting later,” DiNunzio said. “Because it gives us–and when I say us, I’m talking about my team, and other coaches, refs, State of Connecticut, [athletes]–it gives us all hope. And it gives us all the possibility of being able to get out there this year.”
For DiNunzio, a fall start contains too many unknowns and questions that could disrupt the season–such as what to do if the school shuts down because of a presumptive case. Likely, they would have to pull the plug on the game, and as a BOE meeting previously revealed, school officials expect there likely will be frequent closures at the beginning of school, which could make for a very disrupted season. DiNunzio said he supports any season where players can play, and he thinks spring may be a better option.
For Coffey, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and the start of the football season “has been overwhelming.” However, what’s important to him isn’t when they play, but that they are able to play at all.
“This season means more to us than anything else about our senior year so far,” Coffey said. “We all have our fingers crossed that it happens whether it be in the spring or not.”
No matter what the CIAC Board of Control decides, one thing is clear–the players want to have a season, whenever that is. Masterson agreed, with one important caveat–that it would not overlap with spring or winter sports.
“We’re very much against the idea of having lacrosse and football overlap,” Masterson said. “Personally, my son is the quarterback of the football team and he’s also a midfielder on the lacrosse team, and to make a kid make that decision of an overlapping season would be very unfair to him or her for sure.”
DiNunzio said any postponement could cause complications because even if regular season play didn’t conflict with other sports, pre-season training and conditioning potentially could.
What spring-season football would look like is relatively up in the air. According to the Gametime CT article, the CIAC said it would not substitute fall sports for spring sports, so any football season would either have to happen simultaneously or in-between other seasons.
Moreover, for many players, a football season is more than a fun activity–it’s an avenue for their futures. According to DiNunzio, athletes actively looking for scholarships and recruitment offers depend on having a season to field offers. Cipri echoed this point, adding that any way they can have a season–no matter when that is–is a must.
“Playing in the fall is no better feeling [than] anything else. If we get the chance to play in the spring then we should 100% do that. A lot of kids need football and other sports to be played to help them get into college. Overall, I’m honestly not sure if we are going to have a season or not. But let’s hope the CIAC [makes a decision] and we can play ball!” Cipri wrote to GMW.
“I Just Want to Play with My Friends”
Masterson said that though a fall season could be played in a shortened and safe way per the existing CIAC guidelines, he anticipates the influence of the CIAC Football Committee will factor heavily into the final decision. Nonetheless, while he understands the safety concern, he believes the CIAC’s initial plan to play football in the fall is the best bet.
“The kids are going to get together, whether they’re playing football or whether [they are] hanging out in their buddy’s basement,” Masterson said. “At least if they play, they’re [together] in a supervised manner [playing] against like-communities that are in similar COVID states.”
Nonetheless, Masterson and DiNunzio emphasized that there is no perfect solution and they’ll accept any decision that best keeps everyone safe. The players, too, understand the need to take every safety precaution necessary. At the end of the day, they just want to play.
“We have all played together since third grade and it would be awful if we couldn’t finish our journey,” Gulbin wrote. “Personally, I don’t care if we play football in the spring, fall, or winter; I just want to have the chance to play football with my best friends.”