Montgomery County News, Arkansas -

The game remains the same…Sort of

As the first semester of school draws to a close state mandated restrictions have changed the way students attend school. In the midst of the restrictions high school sports struggles to bring some sense of normalcy in the new age of COVID-19 to the lives of students, parents and friends.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in the spring of this year high school sports was one of many things that came to a screeching halt. Reports of the new virus entering the country began to surface in January and by March the virus found its way to Arkansas.
School administrators scrambled to protect students with the closure of schools bringing an end to all extracurricular activities, including spring sports. The Arkansas Activities Association (AAA) announced the suspension of all high school sports in the state in the middle of the basketball state finals with champions being determined on the court in only two classifications.
The summer brought more uncertainty as offseason workouts were prohibited and the state mandated closure of gyms limited the possibility of individual workouts. June saw the return of youth sports, but high school teams weren’t allowed to return to practice until a few week’s before the start of school.
There were questions as to whether there would even be a football season this year, but the AAA announced in August their plans to go forward with the 2020 season.
This announcement came with a long list of restrictions to protect everyone from the spread of COVID-19. Athletes and coaches were required to wear masks when not actively involved in practice of a game and social distancing became a part of everyday life at practice and during game time.
During conversations in the off season Mount Ida Head Football Coach Zach Wuichet stated that while the restrictions make practice a little more difficult, football is football once the kids hit the field.
Game time brought it’s own set of difficulties. Off the field the Arkansas Department of Health limited the number of fans in attendance. Stadiums were only allowed to seat a small percentage of their capacity. Schools employed a variety of items to insure social distancing with strings of caution tape and other obstacles used to assure bleacher seats remained empty. White X’s surrounded the football field in Mount Ida to signal where people could stand and safely socially distance during the game.
The band faced some of the strictest restrictions. While everyone in the stands was required to wear masks, Band members were required to wear their masks even while playing. Bell caps were also purchased to help prevent the possible spread of the virus.
School bands and cheer squads were limited to home games to allow for more fan attendance at away games.
True to Coach Wuichet’s prediction once the whistle blew and play began action on the field looked like any game played pre-virus. However, there were several things on and off the field that served as a reminder that the virus still existed.
Mount Ida used cones to help keep a safe six foot distance between players on the sidelines. This added another thing for the coaches to have to watch for during the game. Coaches were required to wear face coverings when within 12 feet of players. This made it hard for them to be heard on the field at times.
The number of captains allowed to participate in the coin toss was limited to one per team with players standing at least six feet apart. As the season progressed teams began to allow multiple captains to walk to the field for the coin toss, but only one was allowed to walk to the middle of the field. Players could be seen reaching across the six foot divide to bump fists at the end of the season.
Team managers had to make sure players only used their personal water bottles during the game. Water trucks were also absent from the sidelines to prevent the possible spread of the disease.

John Hoeksema keeps a safe distance while bumping fists in a greeting with the opposing team captain. – Photo by Dewayne Holloway

Unfortunately, all the precautions taken weren’t able to protect teams from COVID-19. Mount Ida’s first game was canceled due to Danville being quarantined due to possible exposure. Mount Ida’s junior high program fell victim to quarantine early in the season, missing games against Bearden and Mineral Springs. Individual players and even the coaching staff had to quarantine at different times.
The playoffs were altered with AAA announcing that any school who had missed games due to COVID-19 could play in the playoffs. This required some classifications to add an additional week of games to their playoff schedule.
The start of basketball season brings the action inside which poses a whole new set of issues. Social distancing takes center stage with vouchers being used to control the number of fans in the gymnasium. While vouchers were used during the football season, they became more important during basketball season.
The limited number of seats in a gymnasium has forced many visiting teams to “share” vouchers. Most schools hosting games are limiting the number of vouchers available to visiting teams’ fans. Many schools are receiving as few as 30 vouchers for road games. As a result, schools are clearing the gym between games. Fans who are leaving the gym are passing their vouchers to others who are there to watch the next game.
In an effort to make sure all fans can view the games live streaming has become more common in gymnasiums, as well as football fields. Some schools, like Caddo Hills, have set up live streaming channels on their school website, or on social media. Some are using online streaming services, while others are depending on parents in the stands to stream the games on social media sites.
Benches have expanded to provide proper social distancing with some seats stretching around the gym to accommodate larger schools.

Oden Coach Jared Selby can be seen wearing a mask as he watches to see if Caddo Hills’ Cinthia Lopez can keep the ball inbounds. Masks are required for coaches on the sideline of games. – Photo by Dewayne Holloway

Much like football, the action on the court looks like any other game. The noise levels in most gymnasiums aren’t as loud, but the action is just as intense.
Cancellations have been common at the start of the basketball season. The AAA also prohibited all tournaments except of postseason tournaments. This limits the number of games teams will be able to play this year.
Homecoming and Senior Night activities have also been affected. Senior Nights, which are usually reserved for the last home game of the season in all sports, have occurred during some of the first home games to insure they happen.
Homecoming ceremonies have changed to accommodate social distancing. Caddo Hills and Mount Ida chose to require participants to socially distance while walking. Oden chose to ask family members to escort members of royalty to avoid the social distancing requirement.
In spite of all the restrictions students continue to enjoy the games they play and will strive to stymie the spread of the virus while they enjoy the sports they love.

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