Someone needs to announce the play-by-play on what’s been happening with Connecticut’s high school football situation and the folks deciding whether teams should play any football this fall. It’s as if you’ve got the State Department of Public Health (CT-DPH) on one side of the field and the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) on the other side, and no matter which play gets called someone fumbles the ball, the fans are booing the referees, and neither team can manage to get the ball into the end zone.

Sadly, the real losers of this game are the high school players who, despite the protective motivation behind seemingly contradictory decisions made to keep students healthy (medically and emotionally), they keep getting their hopes raised only to be dashed during the next play.

The latest news came Tuesday, Sept. 29, when CIAC effectively punted, announcing an “alternative spring competition season” for sports that aren’t able to play a full season (less than 40%) during their regularly scheduled time of play. That decision was made after the CIAC Board of Control reviewed the latest CT-DPH guidance issued last Friday, which again cautioned against playing “high-risk” sports–including football–in private or local youth leagues.

The CT-DPH issued its guidance in reaction to some CT high school football teams forming their own ‘private’ leagues or joining local youth leagues, in order to circumvent the interscholastic governance in line with modifications advocated by state health officials and Gov. Ned Lamont.

CIAC echoed that guidance, specifically stating that football coaches are only allowed to coach their schools’ athletes during any permitted fall activities at school-sponsored football activities–preventing them from participating in outside, private leagues. Similarly, CIAC reminded school districts that they would assume liability by loaning equipment to student-athletes to play in any independent, 11 v. 11 full-contact league.

The official statement was explicit:  “A school team participating in higher-risk activities does so against the recommendation of the CIAC and DPH. The CIAC is aware of independent football teams that are forming to offer a limited number of high school-aged players a full-contact fall league. The CIAC does not endorse play in such leagues.”

Why reiterate the caution? According to the DPH website, state health officials expect an increase in the number of COVID-19 infections across Connecticut during the fall and winter months, especially as “schools and workplaces will bring individuals back together in larger numbers, that colder weather will force more activities indoors, the shift in age distribution of COVID-19 cases in CT to youth and young adults, and the persistently high level of disease transmission in most areas of the United States.”

Indeed, Tuesday brought news that the positivity rate in Connecticut has hit 1.75%, the highest it’s been since June 23. Hospitalizations increased by 17, to 92 total state-wide, the highest single-day jump, and the closest it’s been to 100 in months.

Also at work was the recognition that certain sports are more likely to promote exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19, “by their nature.” The CT-DPH defined those as “sports that involve close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers, and high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants, and along with 11 v. 11 football included wrestling, boys lacrosse, competitive cheer and dance on its high-risk list.

CIAC’s New Plan

What CIAC announced Tuesday is a plan to adjust the start and end dates of the winter and spring seasons, in order to create an “alternative season” and lessen the impact to other winter and spring sports. The organization suggested dates with the caveat that “all plans remain fluid and subject to the latest COVID metrics and information.”

CIAC Potential Alternative 2020-2021 Winter Season

  • Conditioning:  Nov. 23-Dec. 5
  • Play:  Dec. 7-Feb. 5
  • CIAC State Tournament: Feb. 8-21

CIAC 2021 Second Semester Alternative Season

  • Conditioning:  Feb. 22-26
  • First day of Full Pads (Football only):  Feb. 27
  • Scrimmage Dates:  March 6, and March 12 or 13
  • Play:  March 19-April 17

CIAC 2021 Spring Sports Season

  • Conditioning:  April 11-22 (for student-athletes not playing a sport in the special season)
  • Play:  April 23-June 8
  • CIAC State Tournament:  June 14-27

Wilton Moving Ahead with 7 v. 7 Fall Season

With the current fall high school football season limited to 7 v. 7 play, CIAC has accommodated the game to include activities for players who ordinarily wouldn’t be on the field. They’ve created a “linemen’s challenge” with activities for those players to compete in before games–things like tire flips, weight-lifting challenges, and other similar strength contests, with the opportunity to add points to the score.

WHS Varsity Football captains (L-R): Michael Coffey, Kiel Polito, Brian Cipri, and Matthew Gulbin. (photo: Christine Polito)

So where does that leave Wilton High School? The school will be participating in CIAC’s 7 v. 7 fall season, with a modified plan that includes five games and a potential playoff game. The first game of the season is this Friday at Ridgefield.

Wilton’s coach E.J. Dinunzio has a holistic approach to what the fall season will be like for his team.

“I have told my kids that what happened to CT Football this season is disheartening but there are things that are going to happen in our lives that are far worse than not being able to compete in the game that we love,” he wrote in an email to GOOD Morning Wilton.

He is disappointed for his team’s seniors, who may have needed this fall season to get the attention of college recruiting coordinators. But teaching his team to make the most of the opportunity is characteristically key for the well-regarded coach.

“We are going to approach this 7 on 7 as an opportunity for us to go out and compete against our local rivals and have some fun doing this. We are going to treat each game and the entire season just like a normal season although it is far from a normal season. I think it’s great that we will have 7 on 7 for all levels of our program. Freshman and JV players will have the same opportunities that our varsity players will have. We will have our team dinners, we will have a Senior night and we will do our “burning of the cleats” which has been a program ritual for decades. We do not feel sorry for ourselves but rather we are thrilled to have the opportunity to compete in 7 on 7 and a linemen’s challenge,” Dinunzio said.

As for a spring football season, Dinunzio says he’s torn.

On the one hand, he doesn’t want a spring football season to negatively impact his athletes who play lacrosse or baseball. “If we can get in a five-game football season and we don’t encroach on the other sports seasons I am in favor of a Spring Season,” he says.

But for Dinunzio, having his players be able to compete side by side in 11×11 tackle football would be thrilling.

“This is a group of young men who have worked extremely hard to get to where they are at today. They have done some things on the football field that haven’t been done here in Wilton in quite a while. I would love to see them, even in an abbreviated spring season, to be able to finish off what they started four years ago,” he noted.

The Ridgefield football team is preparing for its opener at home against Wilton a week from tomorrow – in the FCIAC 7 on 7 league. #cthsfb

— Dave Ruden (@DaveRuden) September 24, 2020