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Section XI executive director Tom Combs calls state's plan for safe return a 'definitive guideline'

Tom Combs is seen during an Empire Challenge

Tom Combs is seen during an Empire Challenge practice at Hofstra University on Saturday, June 18, 2016. Credit: James Escher

Suffolk County sports officials said Saturday that the NYPHSAA guidance for the return of interscholastic athletics released on Friday night presents obstacles, but no hurdle too high to halt the march toward a fall sports season.

“It spells it out, everything that needs to be done to play — it’s a definitive guideline for all aspects involved on a successful return,” said Tom Combs, executive director of Section XI, which governs Suffolk. Still, he and other sports administrators zeroed in on fan attendance and wearing facial coverings during competition as two issues they will be concentrating on.

Section XI is set to follow state guidelines and begin practice and play for low-risk sports — named by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as soccer, field hockey, tennis, cross country and swimming — on Sept. 21. Higher-risk sports will be allowed to begin restricted practices but have no date to start competition.

Section VIII (Nassau) will not have high school sports in the fall and will play three compressed seasons between January and June in 2021.

The NYPHSAA document, drafted by its statewide COVID Task Force for returning to interscholastic athletics, calls for limiting spectators to two per participating athlete. Southold athletic director Darren Phillips said that in order to do that, “we’re going to need more security to cover entrances and exits, rosters for the home and away teams to check . . . [and] there could be an added cost for that.” He added, “I don’t see it as an enormous obstacle.”

Combs doesn’t want any spectators and will discuss it at Thursday’s meeting of ADs.

“I would like to go with no spectators in the fall because it’s just another obstacle,” he said. “We’ll have enough to do to keep everyone playing. Who has the security and the personnel to keep track of the spectators and who’s with who? I know it’ll be an unpopular decision with the parents because they want to watch their kids play, but we need to get back on the field with no added hurdles. It’s a prudent decision that I’ll call on our executive board to recommend to the Athletic Council — that we move forward for now with no spectators.”

The NYSPHSAA guidelines also call on soccer and field hockey players to wear facial coverings “unless unable to tolerate face covering for physical activity” and call for periodically halting play for “mask breaks” and hydration.

Whitman AD Jim Wright said the drafters of the document realized the challenge of competing with a mask on “because the guidance builds in mask breaks.”

Wright added that personal attitudes about facial coverings have no room in the discussion, saying “it cannot be about politics — it has to be about health and safety.”

Combs believes, however, that the comprehensive guidelines did miss the mark on the controversial wearing of masks during play.

“I’m not happy with the recommended-but-not-required mask requirements for players, coaches and officials,” Combs said. “The guidelines suggest ‘masks to be used as tolerated,’ and if a player doesn’t feel comfortable wearing a mask, they don’t have to. Why are students mandated to wear masks in school all day and then during sports, it’s not required?”

School districts — already pinched by cuts to state aid — also might need multiple buses to transport the larger field hockey and soccer teams, according to the state’s socially-distant guidelines, and thus incur more costs.

“We can play tennis, cross country, swimming and golf with little or no problem because the social distancing is easier and the transportation issues to get to events are easier because the teams are smaller,” Wright said. “Soccer and field hockey won’t be easy, but they are doable.”

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