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Woodberry Forest head coach Scott Braswell watches from the sidelines during a game at Woodberry Forest.

The hope of having a private school football season in Central Virginia took a hit Tuesday when the Virginia Prep League and League of Independent Schools announced plans to delay the start of fall sports because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The two leagues announced that low-risk athletic competitions would be delayed until after Oct. 1 to allow schools to focus on students returning and getting re-acclimated to the classroom before sports could resume. The plan would allow for the return of low-risk sports such as cross country and girls tennis in the fall, but high risk sports like football would not be played. The Prep League and LIS said it would evaluate moderate-risk sports such as girls volleyball, soccer, baseball and basketball and make a determination at a later date.

“All schools remain committed to the physical, mental and emotional benefits of interscholastic athletics and our primary goal is to provide opportunities for physical activity and athletic competition in the safest way possible,” the Prep League and LIS Head of Schools and athletic directors wrote in a collective statement that was released Tuesday. “With that in mind, under the guidance of health officials and the National Federation of State High School Associations sports medicine advisory, the LIS and VPL have committed to prioritizing interscholastic opportunities deemed low risk.”

Cross country meets will include staggered start times, with each team running the course on its own and each runner being timed.

The runner with the fastest time of the meet is declared the winner. Other low-risk sports will continue in the winter and spring, including golf, track and field, swimming and diving.

The Prep League and LIS are the latest private school leagues in Virginia to alter their fall sports schedules. Last week, the Interstate Athletic Conference, Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference and the Independent School League, which has teams in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., announced the cancellation of all fall activities for its member schools. In addition, the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association ruled last week it would not sanction state championship events for the 2020 fall season.

On Tuesday, the Prep League and LIS, which includes Fork Union Military Academy, St. Anne’s-Belfield and Woodberry Forest, followed suit.

Woodberry Forest athletic director Matt Blundin said that cross country would be the only varsity sport to compete this fall. Woodberry plans to offer a variety of intramural athletic options, including tennis, golf and mountain biking as well as an outdoors program and athletic development. Baseball and squash also are being considered.

“We are still leaving the door open for competition in soccer and football for this fall, if COVID-19 numbers trend in a better direction,” Blundin wrote in a memo to the school.

The Woodberry Forest athletic director said plans are in the work for intramural sports and varsity team experiences, which would allow opportunities for students to opt in for four-to-five-week blocks of sports-specific training in various varsity level athletics. He said these experiences would be altered to meet safety guidelines with Virginia’s phase of opening.

Donovan Baker, a junior running back for Woodberry Forest hasn’t lost hope regarding the Tigers suiting up this season.

“Episcopal canceling its season for the fall made me worry a little about my season being in jeopardy,” Baker said. “I hope we can figure something out, even if we have to play in the winter or the spring.”

If the football season is not played, it would interrupt the historic annual rivalry game between Woodberry and Episcopal. “The Game” is the South’s oldest continuous high school football rivalry. The two private schools have met every year since 1901 and this fall’s matchup was slated to be the 120th meeting between the two programs.

“It is amazing to be a part of something that stretches back so far in history and has persevered through World Wars, depressions and all the events of history,” Woodberry Forest football coach Scott Braswell said. “I would hate to see the series interrupted by this pandemic.”

Baker agreed.

“I honestly think Woodberry and Episcopal will find some way to play ‘The Game’ because the tradition is so rich and it has been consistent for decades,” he said. “With that being said, my team and I are just trying to stay positive through these unsettling times.”

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