What is the best way to ensure Kentucky’s high school athletes don’t continue to feel the grimy grip of a global pandemic?
In particular, how are school systems across the commonwealth supposed to navigate climbing COVID-19 numbers, while the competitive calendar for basketball, cheerleading, swimming and wrestling approach, and neatly nestle against the spring and its athletes — who’ve already had one season stolen away from their memories?
Wednesday afternoon, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association and its embattled Board of Controls took more than two hours to discuss, deliberate and, ultimately, decide on such issues — unanimously opting to move the start date of the 2020-21 winter sports calendar to Jan. 4, 2021.
Originally scheduled to begin on Monday, a collision course of rising COVID-19 numbers, schools moving toward non-traditional instruction, official mandates from the office of Gov. Andy Beshear and the inevitability of cloistered family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas made the next 6-8 weeks full of landmines capable of derailing an entire winter sports schedule to the point of no return.
Basketball, and the eventual start to spring sports, were naturally the hottest topics of Wednesday’s roundtable, as KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett’s opening plan involved a scenario where a full basketball season opened on Jan. 4, with championships played following the Kentucky Derby in May.
The potential overlap into spring sports, however, was rebuffed and countered by several Board of Controls members, and what was chosen includes March 1 start dates for district tournaments, March 8 start dates for regional tournaments and an expected March 15-21 or March 22-28 window for tentative KHSAA Sweet 16 dates at Lexington’s Rupp Arena, or perhaps elsewhere if needed.
“I really can’t, in clear conscience, think to tell you that it’s a good idea for our member schools to start playing organized and official games this coming Monday,” Tackett lobbied. “I know there will be parents upset. That’s OK. I know there will be coaches upset. There will be kids upset.
“At the same time, I’ve tried to keep in mind the priorities you all (the BOC) have had all year, and we’ve talked about this. No. 1, it was to not let another group lose the entire season. Whatever we did, whatever we could do, we had to try to do.
“Secondly, we would preserve and complete a full spring sports season. That’s the group that was most impacted last year. A reduction of two-to-three football dates was big, but they didn’t lose the whole thing like last spring. Our priority was ‘Can we have a full and complete season?’
“Next, I want to be sure we keep the priority in mind that we want all of these sport activities to have a culminating event. That’s what these athletes work for. Whether that’s a state tournament or a championship opportunity. I don’t care if it’s going for two days to fish on Kentucky Lake at Kentucky Dam Village, or if it’s at Rupp Arena. We saw the loss of that last year, for those folks who had worked so hard to get to that final game or that final tournament. Some: mid-tournament. All of this is said to ask: ‘What do we do to prevent that from happening again? What is our best chance to do that?’ ”
From a local standpoint, there is certainly an immediate impact on scheduled games. The revered Marshall County Hoopfest — typically hosted in Draffenville’s Reed Conder Gymansium the first week of December — was already slated as a state-only tournament, and will have to be moved to the beginning of 2021, if played at all. This upcoming Monday, second-year St. Mary coach Chase Denson and his Vikings were set to host a locally-flavored Thanksgiving Classic, which would’ve showcased boys basketball teams from Hickman County, Calloway County, Ballard Memorial, Trigg County and Trinity (Whitesville).
In general for Paducah’s basketball teams, it means an entire reworking of a schedule that’s long been in place. For boys, McCracken County (at least 13 games), Paducah Tilghman (at least 14 games), St. Mary (at least 16 games) and Community Christian Academy (at least six games) lost nearly 50 games. For girls, McCracken County (at least 13 games), Paducah Tilghman (at least 10 games), St. Mary (at least seven games) and Community Christian Academy (at least 14 games) lost nearly 45 games.
The KHSAA football playoffs, scheduled to kick off this week, will continue as scheduled. What was made clear by the KHSAA Board of Controls is that a three-week practice period for winter sports can resume for school districts after Dec. 13, if districts so choose based on local COVID-19 numbers and further guidance from attached health departments and the governor’s office.
• Tackett assured that Lexington’s Kroger Field will remain as the state’s venue for the 2020 KHSAA Football Championships, because the facility has plans in place for proper out-of-doors social distancing. To this point, 19 teams have removed themselves from the football playoff picture due to COVID-19 concerns, and with the playoffs full-steam ahead, Tackett also noted that if more teams continue to back out of the postseason, their spots will not be filled and byes will be issued. In the event a semifinals or finals teams is forced to withdraw, “a previous losing team will be offered the opportunity to fill the bracket.”