Finality is not here, not quite yet in the strange year of 2020.
While vaccines for the COVID-19 virus are being flown across the country, high school sports in Hawaii remain on hold. Leagues are waiting on bated breath for word — and approval — from the Department of Health.
Coaches across the state are optimistic about the chances for outdoor sports like soccer and swimming/diving, according to a Hawaii Prep World poll.
Eighteen winter-sport coaches, roughly half of those contacted, participated in the voting. They were asked to score each sport on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the most likely to resume playing and 1 the least likely.
The Year 2021
Winter sports, if approved, are scheduled to begin in January with league-only play. The poll numbers are not surprising given the “higher risk” label on a high-contact sport like wrestling. According to the National Federation of High Schools, competitive cheer and football are also in the higher-risk category.
The biggest wrinkle in the most wretched sports year in history is a good one for private schools. The Interscholastic League of Honolulu is leaning toward opening sports in January. With no state championships on the horizon, the ILH could become the only league with a layered plan and schedule.
That includes intermediate sports, according to ‘Iolani co-Athletic Director Wendell Look. And it may also include the most questioned sport in the coronavirus era: Wrestling.
“I know the ILH is more liberal when it comes to sports during this pandemic. ILH has been pushing hard for wrestling where the OIA is not,” Kamehameha wrestling coach Chris West said.
One state, Illinois, has moved wrestling to the summer. In Ohio, wrestling season is underway with one caveat: no shaking hands.
“Mike Fetters told me that Arizona high school football and basketball are going full force,” new Damien boys basketball coach Keith Spencer said. “(My son) RJ misses his peers and teammates. We go to Enchanted Lake Park almost daily.”
The crush of sports, nine months worth in a four-month span of January to May, is unprecedented. The HHSAA’s proposal to the DOH has a framework of winter sports from January to February, last fall’s postponed sports from February to March, and spring sports in April and May.
“I think the state really wants to find a safe way to make it happen, but there’s nothing simple about the solution. The issue is going to surround when sports actually begin, how much time is left to fit in whatever amount is decided on,” Kaiser boys basketball coach Kenneth Powell said. “Sports that wouldn’t normally run the same time may all of a sudden happen together, forcing kids to choose between one or the other.”
One sport that seems built for safety in this environment is cross country, but longtime runner and ‘Iolani assistant coach Jonathan Lyau sees another obstacle.
““It may be hard to get a facility to run a 5K distance (for cross country),” he said. “I can’t see schools allowing a cross country meet on campus if they’re not allowing in-person schooling. The ILH has a better chance of some kind of sports season than the OIA.”
Round ball, square box
Basketball has a challenge with indoor settings, but practicing outside would be an effective solution. Masks. Sanitizing hands and basketballs. Social distancing. The discussion, at least publicly, hasn’t reached that point though there are youth players and teams doing drills and reps on outside courts across Oahu.
“They’ve been taking a long time to give us the green light. I just figured that at this point, they’re probably going to let some of the ‘less contact’ sports (be played),” Leilehua boys basketball coach Chad Townsend said. “I think spring sports still have a good chance, but it’s getting hard for winter. Doesn’t seem like the DOH knows what they’re going to do yet. Hopefully, spring sports can still play.”
Leilehua girls basketball coach Elroy Dumlao is also taking a pragmatic, if pessimistic perspective.
“I can’t see any progress in the situation. Don’t get me wrong. I’m wishing and praying every day that we have a season. I have a bunch of great young girls who are ready to be developed,” said Dumlao, who has read and heard about athletes in different sports transferring to the mainland to get a season on video for potential recruiters.
“We need our kids to stay home and play and represent. Parents and kids are getting worried about getting to the next level, so it’s important to play where they can play,” Dumlao said.
The longtime coach sees the effect of structure, or lack thereof, for this year’s student-athletes.
“I am sad and worried about the kids who need sports, to be part of something like family, social life, education with grade checks. I’m talking about kids who’s only going to play high school. Sad situation. Athletics is the best vehicle for our kids’ future, for themselves, family and the state of Hawaii,” he said.
Dumlao is a retired corrections worker. His wife is a teacher, and so is one of his sons.
“The most important thing in this pandemic is trying to keep our kids interested. Some may lose focus. That’s what I’m afraid of. Might go in the wrong direction,” he said. “So parents and coaches are very important at this time.”
Face to face matters?
Private schools have largely returned to campus, though students have the option to remain at home and distance learn. Public schools have not returned to campus full time. Debate is ongoing about allowing athletes to participate in school sports without physically being in classrooms.
One longtime coach who did not want to be identified said that “FTF” (face to face) should not be a determining factor, but there are others who disagree.
“I don’t know how the OIA will allow sports to happen if the kids aren’t even back to school yet,” ‘Iolani assistant boys basketball coach Branden Kawazoe said.
Kawazoe was a head coach at Kaiser a few years back.
“The DOE is in a tough situation because there are so many working and moving parts,” he said. “How does UH do it?”
Setting the bar
Over the weekend, Hawaii hosted HPU in men’s and women’s basketball games at SimpliFi Arena, formerly known as Stan Sheriff Arena. Here are the protocols, according to Eric Mathews of the UH Athletic Department.
Players, coaches and close working staff are tested three times per week.
>> Locker rooms
Designated locker rooms are not used.
“They’re using an area in SimpliFi Arena that is wide open so they can spread out and keep a social distance. They’re using the area that is usually designated for the Diamond Head working media areas,” Mathews noted. “Lots of space.”
“They are worn at practice, but can be pulled down or off during strenuous activity.”
“Provided by the program, individualized for each player as a personal meal.”
“Each player has a designated seat on the bench. Seats are socially distanced and spread out. Same for the coaches.”
Roosevelt boys basketball coach Steve Hathaway sees a major plus for the Rainbow Warrior and Rainbow Wahine indoor teams.
“I think UH works a little more because of the size (of the arena),” he said.
“I think by the time all priority people get vaccinated, school will be done,” Dumlao said. “Next year might be another story. I’m still hoping for the best.”
Roosevelt girls basketball coach Joseph Cho is hoping for the best, prepared for the worst.
“From what I hear, it’s not definite, but do not be surprised if sports are cancelled completely in the OIA. The ILH is a different story. It’s leaning that way, at least the last time I had a discussion with people who know more than me,” said Cho, who formerly played and coached at McKinley. “I do not think the OIA is willing to be responsible for any cases of (COVID-19). The OIA is listening and wanting approval also from the DOH. I really wish we have some kind of season for the seniors.”
Vaccination is the key word. The question is whether there will be enough of it done for student-athletes in the islands in time for any kind of sports calendar.
“I think it’s going to be hard to have sports until we have a vaccine,” Hathaway said. “Then it could become a problem of, are only students who have the vaccine allowed to play? The people in charge have some difficult decisions ahead. They can’t make you get a flu shot, so can they make you take a (COVID-19 vaccine)? A lot to still be worked out, I think.”
Hathaway is an elementary school teacher. His older son, Taven, is a promising pitcher-first baseman at Saint Louis. Baseball and all other spring sports were cut short by the pandemic.
“The biggest thing is let’s make sure we are all going to be safe before we rush back into playing. I miss sports as much as anyone, but I don’t want to see anyone get sick or even worse,” Hathaway said. “I think the focus should be the sports that were cancelled last year, the spring sports. Hate to see an athlete lose two straight seasons.”
Hathaway and some coaches are seeing some fence-sitting, even rule-breaking, during this long stretch of inactivity for most high school teams.
“Right now, some coaches aren’t following rules and we are not making progress. I know coaches having 10-15 man practices and scrimmaging with no masks and no social distancing. I don’t care if coaches get (upset) about me saying teams are practicing. It’s the truth,” Hathaway said.
“My old assistant said he sees plenty of teams having full practices on the west side, mostly all club teams. (OIA coaches) are not supposed to be doing anything right now. I want my players to get games in, but I’m not breaking the rules to do it. That’s why people need to call the hotline when they see it. There are so many schools doing it. I guess I just don’t feel like getting the fine or getting my team DQ’d. I believe in an even playing field.”
The Hathaways set up a portable mound in the back yard during the fall. They also have apparatus for hitting.
“I only allow three kids to come to my house to hit at a time and I make their parents wait in their cars,” he said.
Neighbor island flexibility?
Kauai and the Big Island have had more success with controlling the spread of the virus. The Kauai Interscholastic Federation and Big Island Interscholastic Federation — which include public and private schools — are still beholden to the DOE and what the OIA generally instructs.
“What I’m hearing from ADs and other coaches is it’s a slim chance here on Maui, especially now that our case counts are rising,” Seabury Hall girls basketball coach Keoni Labuanan said.
“I’m really hopeful for basketball and all our sports even if each season is only a month long,” Hawaii Prep boys basketball coach Fred Wawner said. “Our kids and communities will hopefully get the chance.”
Longtime Kamehameha-Hawaii boys volleyball coach Guy Enriques has spent some time on the water fishing with his sons through the pandemic. He is normally busy year-round with keiki volleyball camps.
“It’s tough when you are young and feeling like you are missing out, but the permanent price people pay, death, and the heartfelt loss of their families are far more painful,” he said. “And the sad thing is much can be avoided.”
(Correction: Joseph Cho is the girls basketball coach at Roosevelt.)