COVID-19 rewrites the rules of the game for Long Island high school football this season
A school year unlike any other will fittingly have a football season unlike any other.
Back in August, shortly before preseason football practices had originally been scheduled to begin, all public school sports across Long Island were bent to the will of the coronavirus pandemic. Section VIII and Section XI, the respective governing bodies for public school sports in Nassau and Suffolk counties, opted against playing any sport before 2021. They opted instead to squeeze abbreviated seasons from January to June with winter followed by fall and then spring.
And so we have arrived in March for the start of fall sports. The football season will not just be different because of where it falls on the calendar. The changes are myriad.
Probably the best place to start with the 2021 spring football season is the ending. Every year since 1992 there have been Long Island Championships, the iconic quartet of games where the Nassau champion and the Suffolk champion meet in each of four enrollment classifications.
Not this year. The pandemic has created such a shoe-horning effect that it won’t be possible to hold the LIC. In fact, the football seasons for Nassau and Suffolk won’t even end at the same time.
Section VIII has its county title games scheduled during the second weekend in May, overlapping with the period in the spring sports season for practices required before competition. Section XI is holding its county title games on the first weekend in May, preferring that student-athletes who play sports in both the fall and spring not be forced to choose between them for any period of time.
"The LIC is one of the events that became collateral damage to the COVID pandemic," Section XI executive director Tom Combs said. "The Long Island Championships are one of the big events – really the biggest event – of the calendar year. We just couldn’t get on the same page with Nassau’s schedule to make it possible. The LIC is to [football] athletes what the state tournament events are to all the other athletes in our other sports. It’s disappointing all around but we’re very happy that we’re back playing at all."
Now back to the beginning
Many things leading up to a game day are going to be different. In Suffolk, athletes in so-called "high risk" sports like football will undergo weekly COVID-19 testing per the county department of health guidelines. In Nassau, the department of health left all testing decisions to the individual school districts.
As became apparent during the recently concluded winter season, with testing comes positives and the ensuing contact tracing, which means some teams could be shorthanded and others could see infections widespread enough that they have to pause entirely.
On Nassau’s first weekend, East Rockaway, Friends Academy, Mineola, Seaford and Wantagh are all in quarantine. In Suffolk, Mount Sinai, Miller Place and Bayport-Blue Point have been quarantined.
Some in Section VIII are testing and others are not, which already has created some issues. As Newsday reported on Monday, Herricks, Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK, Westbury and possibly Seaford are refusing to take the field against teams that do not test. Programs doing that will forfeit those games – and their postseason hopes potentially take a hit – but their opponents will be allowed to seek out another game for those weeks for non-conference games that have no impact on the standings.
So between quarantines and refusals to play, games inevitably will be canceled. In Week One, five Section VIII games were canceled and two Section XI contests were postponed. Suffolk schools have a small window to play makeup games, but Nassau does not.
Here’s an interesting quirk that high school football fans should get used to, given the inevitability of cancellations. Teams that have an opponent cancel due to COVID, could pick up a game for that week with another team in the same situation.
Locust Valley and Clarke both had season-openers cancelled because the opposing team is in quarantine. The two Nassau Conference IV teams decided to play each other, even though they already are to meet in Week Four. The first meeting will be considered a non-conference game and have no bearing on the standings. The second meeting, three weeks from now, will be considered a conference game and possibly have playoff implications.
"We’re going to try to help schools that lose an opponent get a non-conference game," Section VIII executive director Pat Pizzarelli said. "But we’re going to be careful. We might steer away from pairing a Conference IV team with a Conference I team for safety reasons. We don’t want people getting hurt."
Game day will be a completely new experience as well. Per guidance of the New York State Department of Health, locker rooms cannot be used by visiting teams. Home teams need to dress in small groups for practice and game day.
"Visiting teams are going to arrive for games already dressed to play," Pizzarelli said. "If the weather is good enough, you’ll see the visiting team together at halftime. If the weather is inclement they could be in a cafeteria or gymnasium where they can maintain social distance."
Watching the game
And there’s the matter of what the game environment will be like. It’s March, so the season will start chilly rather than ending that way. But the stands at the stadiums and fields where the games are held will be pretty empty.
Section XI is allowing no spectators from the visiting team, whether the sport be played inside or outside. Section VIII permits spectators from both teams at all games – though that doesn’t mean school districts will allow it, and Pizzarelli said more than 50% will not. In Nassau, most schools will give two passes to every game-day participant including cheerleaders, dance teams and bands. At all Long Island sporting events, spectators are instructed to follow social distancing protocols.
Fans that gather on vantage points outside the stadium could be dispersed by school security officers if on the school grounds. But many fields abut a sidewalk and that’s public property. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Massapequa fan base outside the border fence to Freeport High School for Saturday’s season opener, a huge game for both schools.
SectionXI's website lists the Suffolk schools that allow visiting spectators to outdoor events only.
If there is a piece of good news for the fans, most schools are taking measures to have their games live streamed so extended family, the community and the student body can watch them.
The schedules have been altered to accommodate the compressed season. Section VIII schools will play a six-game schedule instead of the usual eight followed by county semifinals and a championship in the four conferences. Those games will be played on campus, rather than at Hofstra.
Section XI has moved from four divisions to eight six-team leagues. In each league, a school faces the other five once and the top two reach the postseason. The two playoff teams in the two largest enrollment leagues advance to a Division I semifinal to play an opponent from the other league. The Division II postseason has teams from League 3 and League 4; Division III from League 5 and League 6; and Division IV from League 7 and League 8.
And the last big difference in this season will be the noticeable absences. Central Islip with not field a football team for the first time since 1956, and Riverhead, Southampton and Greenport won’t have teams. In some cases, the absences were due to a lack of interest in football and in others because of concerns about COVID-19.