DIAA sets outline for winter

Cape Henlopen High School varsity wrestling head coach Chris Mattioni watches his team practice on Thursday afternoon in Lewes. Special to the Delaware State News/Butch Comegys

DOVER — The high school winter sports season took a step forward on Thursday.

But what the season looks like when it starts in mid-January or ends in late February/early March still remains to be seen.

The DIAA board of directors approved the basic outline of the winter sports season on Thursday.

It will have a seven-week regular season, running from approximately Jan. 11-Feb. 25. There is a maximum of 14 competitions for basketball and wrestling and 12 for swimming.

There should be 48-72 hours between competitions.

Still to be determined is whether there will be state championships — and the answer might be different for each sport.

Rather than try to make a blanket decision on Thursday, the DIAA is asking each sport’s tournament committee to make a proposal for a state championship to be considered at the board’s next meeting on Jan. 11.

“They know their sport better than this board does,” said Sussex Central High principal Dr. Bradley Layfield, the DIAA board chairman.

“I honestly believe we’re setting the table to have a regular season,” he added. “And that we have a plan should we be fortunate enough to have state tournaments. But, in all likelihood, I think what we need to do is just look at how can we safely have as much participation in the winter as possible.

“My personal opinion is I think the state tournament sports are a much, much bigger question mark than they were for the fall — only because of the COVID data that we’re dealing with now. We’re continuing to set (coronavirus) records in a bad way.”

Cape Henlopen sophomore varsity wrestler C.J. Fritchman, right, practices with teammate sophomore Luke Bender on Thursday afternoon.

The issues are being dealt with as the state continues to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Indoor sports are considered more likely to spread the virus than outdoor ones.

Right now, the state is heading into a winter sports competition shutdown from Dec. 14-Jan. 11, mandated by Gov. John Carney,
The current fall sports season, which is slated to finish on Dec. 19 with the football state championship games, is being allowed to finish. And winter-sports teams are permitted to practice.

Issues remain for swimming, where there are only a limited number of pools open to teams this year. The University of Delaware’s Carpenter Sports Building pool, which annually hosts the DIAA state championships, is not available for the meet.

Officials also aren’t sure if a state championship meet — with a large number of competitors from different schools — can be held under state guidelines.

Those same protocols, of course, also apply to wrestling, which holds both a team and individual state championship.

With indoor track, the problem is that there are no indoor facilities available in Delaware and teams aren’t permitted to go out of state to compete.

The DIAA board did discuss allowing track teams the option of competing as club teams and running outside when weather permitted.

There was also a good deal of discussion about making sure the winter sports season didn’t overlap with the spring one. There is concern about the extra workload put on athletic trainers as well as not intruding on the spring season, which was completely wiped out by the pandemic last year.

Because of the seven-hour length of the board meeting, the DIAA tabled a few other items that were on the agenda. Most notably, the realignment of football in the state — perhaps into three divisions — was put off until more feedback from the schools could be obtained.

There were some complaints about how the fields for some of the fall state tournaments were selected.

Board member Doug Thompson even proposed scrapping the current football state tournament in favor of playing ‘bowl’ games next weekend. But the proposal was not moved further.

Cape Henlopen sophomore varsity wrestler Luke Bender takes a brief rest on the mat during practice on Thursday. All wrestlers and coaches must wear face masks.

At issue in football and other sports was the fact that some teams, which didn’t play the minimum number of games due to COVID-19 issues, were granted waivers to have their seasons count towards state tourney calculations.

Some people aren’t happy that Delmar, which played only four games, still counted as an official victory for Caesar Rodney. That, in turn, gave both Smyrna and Sussex Central both a crucial extra bonus point.

That point gave Smyrna the top seed in the Division I bracket and put Central in ahead of defending state champion Hodgson.

Layfield said the DIAA has learned some lessons from things that happened in the fall. One thing, he said, was for the DIAA board to give more-inclusive instructions to the tourney committees before they meet.

“I think our board and our tournament committees were trying to strike a balance between setting something consistent — because people like to know the rules ahead of time,” said Layfield, “but also realizing that, with COVID, to try to show some flexibility and responsiveness.

“We probably should have seen this ahead of time, in trying to do that, you’re still going to have folks upset no matter what you do.”

According to Donna Polk, the DIAA executive director, at least 75 games had to be canceled this fall because of COVID-19 issues with 53 reports of issues involving the virus and sports.

Also, according to board member Dr. Bradley Bley, the state Department of Health said there were 33 cases of quarantines among DIAA teams but only one case of multiple athletes on the same team testing positive.

“I can say the DIAA appreciates the support of parents knowing we’re trying our best to provide an outlet for students to participate as safely as possible,” said Layfield. “Like all of us, it’s our first time dealing with all of this and the nuances of it. And we haven’t gotten everything 100 percent correct.

“But we’ve definitely tried our best. We’ve learned from what works and we learned from what didn’t. … Ultimately, folks have to remember it’s all about the kids.”