The Virginia High School League has taken the next step toward its goal of providing athletic and academic competitions to its 318 member schools for the 2020-21 season.
On Thursday, the VHSL’s Executive Committee unanimously voted to approve the league’s proposed Championship +1 plan. The plan calls for each sport to play 60 percent of its normal regular season schedule while holding a modified postseason with regional and state championships.
“We have received invaluable input from our school communities, parents and students who say the physical and mental health benefits of getting our students back to a level of participation is extremely important,” VHSL executive director Dr. Billy Haun said. “The Championship +1 schedule will provide sports in all three seasons.”
The first sports to begin will be basketball and sideline cheer, which can start practices on Dec. 7. Their first games are slated for Dec. 21.
Indoor track, swimming and diving and wrestling begin practicing Dec. 14, with their first competitions slated for Dec. 28. Regional playoffs start at the beginning of February and state playoffs will wrap up for most winter sports by the end of the month.
The indoor track and field season will extend into the first two days of March because of scheduling conflicts with state championship venue sites. The Class 3 and 4 state meets return to Liberty University on March 1 or 2, while the Class 5 and 6 championships are slated for the same date at the new indoor complex in Virginia Beach.
Fall sports start Feb. 4 with practices for high school football and competition cheer. The first football games are slated for Feb. 22. Golf, volleyball and cross country start practicing Feb. 15, with their first date of competition slated for March 1. Regional play begins April 5-12 for all sports, while state championships will run from the final week of April through May 1 for football.
An adjustment was made to the original document regarding postseason qualifications for cross country and girls golf. For cross country, the top two teams from each region and the top three individuals will advance to the state competition. In girls golf, athletes can qualify through zone qualifiers, or girls who participate on their boys team and finish in the top eight at the state meet also qualify for the state tournament.
Another change is the number of dead period days for each sport. The current plan calls for 12 days between the winter and spring seasons. The fall season will have 16 days, mostly to allow football to have its 15 required practices prior to its first game.
Spring sports can begin practice on April 12. Tennis matches start April 21, while baseball, lacrosse, soccer, softball, tennis and track begin competition April 26. Most state semifinals, except for tennis, start June 22 and the season will end by June 26.
Thursday’s vote marked the culmination of nearly four months of planning and countless meetings with schools, administrators, coaches, parents, as well as in-depth conversations with the Virginia Department of Education, state health officials and the Governor’s office.
“The VHSL Executive Committee acknowledges that no plan is perfect,” Haun said. “We are in unprecedented times in which we have been forced to create a temporary new normal. We understand this plan, or any plan, will not meet the expectations for those wanting a normal fall, winter and sports season. This plan, however, will allow student-athletes an academic activity participants the opportunity of having a season and playing for a state championship.”
Prior to the vote, Haun acknowledged the recent push by a group of parents and students that would like to see sports return this fall. The “Let Them Play” campaign, which organized a rally in Richmond earlier this week, has inundated the VHSL office with emails and started an online petition that featured more than 5,700 signatures.
The parents’ primary concerns included frustration that club sports have continued to play, but high school sports could not. They stated that mental and emotional strains for athletes from missing sports, as well as student-athletes missing out on potential scholarship opportunities. The final piece involved other states, including surrounding associations in Tennessee and Delaware that have returned to play while the VHSL does not.
According to the National Federation of High School Associations, only eight of the 51 state associations are not playing high school sports this fall. Of that number, 29 associations are playing a modified schedule, while 14 are playing as usual.
In terms of football, Haun said that only 14 associations nationally are playing football with no modifications at all. The VHSL said 19 associations are playing with some modifications and that 18 others, including Virginia, are not playing at all.
Looking at the recent COVID-19 numbers, Haun said the positivity rate state-wide is “down a little bit,” but the total number of cases have fluctuated between 800 to 1,100 over the past six to eight weeks.
In addition, Haun said that approximately 68 of the 128 schools divisions state wide are fully remote with regards to student learning and it would be difficult to rationalize playing sports while 82% of the state’s students are not in school.
“The primary goal is to get kids in schools,” he said. “As the VHSL, we can open sports up, but that doesn’t mean that all of our kids would be able to play.”
Locally, Central Virginia athletic directors are pleased with the VHSL’s plan.
“We are happy that we will have the opportunity to compete,” William Monroe athletic director Brian Collier said. “Hopefully there are no setbacks and we can continue to move forward.”
Orange County athletic director Michael Neeley said the plan is more than about sports.
“We are excited about an opportunity, not just to get out and compete, but a chance to get back together and feel a sense of normalcy,” he said. “Our families have endured a lot and they’ve been patient. Now, they deserve the return of everything that we love about sports.”