To no surprise, the Hawaii High School Athletic Association announced cancellation of state championship tournaments that had been tentatively slated in March.
Air riflery, basketball, bowling, competitive cheer, cross country, paddling, soccer, swimming and diving, and wrestling will be regular-season sports only if some of the state’s five leagues choose to do so. The Interscholastic League of Honolulu announced earlier in the week the cancellation of five sports.
Travel restrictions were already a factor in the immense puzzle that the pandemic has been.
“Our intent for cancelling the first set of state tournaments was to allow our member schools the opportunity to participate in a longer league season, rather than a truncated one with regional and state tournament play for only a limited number of schools,” HHSAA Executive Director Chris Chun said. “Although the state tournaments are cancelled, leagues are not restricted in conducting their seasons if it is deemed safe to do so. We will continue to work with the Department of Health and government officials for the possibility to hold state tournaments for the remaining sports in late May.”
Reaction from longtime coaches across different sports has remained steadfast. The odds seem long in the OIA, but Pearl City girls soccer co-head coach Frank Baumholtz sees participation, not championships, as a goal that can be achieved. No standings. No trophies. Just play under strong protocols.
“I think everybody should play. The kids are so antsy to play, OK? They need to burn up that energy. I can see doing a regular season with no playoffs, no nothing, where say you had 20 kids come out to soccer. Every game, you could play everybody because you weren’t worrying about winning,” Baumholtz said. “If you give the OIA an exhibition season, no standings, get the kids out there and that way the seniors would have some satisfaction, and the juniors, sophomores and freshmen would have something to look forward to next year.”
He suggests a platoon system set by grade levels, which would allow maximum use of everyone on a roster. That helps when conditioning time is limited.
“Our preseason is gone already. Tuesday this coming week would’ve been the first day for tryouts. No preseason conditioning. One of the physical problems Pennsylvania had were knee and ankle injuries. They were locked down from March all the way to August. Hamstring problems. Worked it all out by the end of the season, but (OIA) coaches can’t be berserk about conditioning the kids when they’re having a season,” he said. “That’s why I like the idea of two platoons: older kids and younger kids. No standings. Referees will adapt to it. If somebody comes down with COVID-19, they shut the team down for a week.”
Campbell girls soccer coach James Curran, however, isn’t sure there would be enough interest in an exhibition-type season.
“Honestly, if there is no state tournament and potentially no OIA playoffs, there will be more value for the competitive junior and senior players who are still not committed to colleges to cancel the season. There is a sense of pride in high school ball, but not much exposure to colleges outside of local programs,” Curran said. “With no real tournaments, there is more value for the girls to train with their club teams and prepare for mainland tournaments where hundreds of college recruiters will be.”
Cross country is one of the Season 1 sports that the ILH has approved for play, though with a different format that keep each team from mixing with others.
“Cross country competitions will have a very different atmosphere with all the safety measures in placeWe don’t know how many meets we will have or how the season will be laid out,” ‘Iolani assistant coach Jonathan Lyau said. “At this point, we feel lucky to have some sort of season with the kids. Competitions are what keeps a lot of kids motivated, so it is important.”
“Season 2” sports are a combination of postponed fall sports and traditional spring sports: baseball, football, golf, judo, softball, tennis, track and field, water polo and volleyball.
“We are in a brutal situation. If everything gets cancelled all the way through football, baseball, then they really need to have a better game plan through next fall,” said Baumholtz, who has coached high school soccer for 33 years. “But I don’t think (spring sports) will be cancelled. I want to be optimistic.”
At this point, coaches and players in the ILH are hoping schools can find common ground and schedule informal competition in “bubble” scenarios for the sports that have been cancelled. Saint Louis basketball coach Dan Hale talked about the concept earlier in the week. Damien boys basketball coach Keith Spencer reiterated the possibility.
“We’re trying to work that out. I’ve been talking to (Kamehameha boys basketball coach) Larry Park, Dan Hale and (Le Jardin boys basketball coach) Tim Harrison. We’re trying to see if we can go ahead and schedule home-and-home. We have some time to work with. I talked to my athletic director (Eddie Klaneski) and he said, ‘Figure out what to do, what protocols have to be in place.’ There would be no spectators,” said Spencer, who previously coached at Leilehua and Saint Louis.
In the bubble scenario, teams would agree to protocol standards and play each other within a one-week span, minimizing contact with other schools.
“I would ask that we add two more time outs (per game) because the kids are wearing masks, so they can get proper rest,” Spencer noted. “Safety is always going to be priority. I don’t want people thinking we’re doing this just because we want to play basketball.”
‘Iolani boys basketball coach Ryan Hirata is also a supporter of a potential pro-bubble format.
“In order for a bubble to happen in basketball, the planning and safety precautions need to be implemented and communicated at a very high level between all those involved,” Hirata said. “Everything from testing, masks, seating on the benches, referees and more. This is unknown territory, but who’s to say we are not in the exact same position we are in a year from now. Whether any time of competitive action happens or not, the kids need to know we tried all we could to at least give them an opportunity under the right circumstances.”
At Mid-Pacific, the Owls girls basketball team was superb last season. Coach Reid Sagawa said he appreciates the safety-first approach. He’s also longing for the kind of dexterity that would make a series of bubble matchups become reality.
“I’m hopeful individual schools will allow flexibility to plan activities for their seniors to bring closure to their careers. At this point, that’s all we can ask for,” he said. “(The ILH’s and HHSAA’s cancellations) are extremely disappointing because as a second-year coach, we were trying to build on last season’s successes to build the program. We just need to be more purposeful and creative in finding ways to accomplish this over the next two months with restrictive practices.”
Kamehameha girls basketball coach Pua Straight says the bubble scenario is a work in progress.
“I have heard all different types of ideas thrown around from intramural to COVID testing and scheduling bubble games with other schools. I have spoken to coaches of the different ILH schools and each school seems to have its own ideas of what is afe for their athletes. I am looking forward to meeting with my own athletic directors sometime this week to discuss thoughts and ideas of how we can move forward safely,” Straight said.
There have been no announcements by the OIA, MIL, BIIF and KIF regarding winter sports and some of the postponed fall sports — comprising “Season 1” — but skepticism for higher-risk sports is relatively high, according to coaches who were polled by Hawaii Prep World in December.
There has been no high school sports since March of 2020, when the first statewide lockdown began, cutting the spring sports season short.
“My granddaughter’s in Pennsylvania and the whole soccer season was played. They played the whole football season. Only field hockey was shut down,” Baumholtz said.
He hears from his team captains, who are eager to play their senior seasons. He has no doubt student-athletes will comply with all protocols, or would, if allowed to play.
“The key in the administration of athletics is where you let the flow of the game determine itself. The kids aren’t stupid. They’ve been locked down for nine months or more. They want to play. If they have to play with a mask, they’ll play with a mask on,” Baumholtz said. “It’s like running on the treadmill at 24-Hour Fitness. They run out of breath, they step off and pull the mask down, and go back on.”
Baumholtz’s hope hasn’t waned just yet. He’s prepared to help all he can.
“If we have a season, all the coaches have to be swabbed (tested) at one site. If they test negative, they sit out two weeks. And how comfortable do the trainers feel in the OIA? I told our trainer I’ll be at the game with you to help with the temperature gauge, and if you need help at football games. I’m a player. I want to play, even if it’s only mentally.”
Spencer’s team has been practicing — individual drills, sanitized and distanced — at outside parks while Damien’s campus remains off limits.
“We practice from 2 to 4 (p.m.) and the sun is striking, but the kids are resilient and they’re working hard. We’ve been practicing with masks on, and then our players go home right away with their parents. Nobody hanging around, just go right home,” Spencer said. “I want what we’ve been building with the kids to continue. The kids called me and they told me they don’t want to stop. They want to keep practicing.”
For some student-athletes, sports is the spark to education.
“For some kids, sports really are everything. Without sports, they might not pursue that education in college. Not everybody can pay for a college education. Sports teaches life lessons. It takes a lot of commitment to take care of your studies, go to practice, finish your homeworker. It takes time management and isn’t easy to do,” said Spencer, who was a standout player at ‘Iolani.
Curran added one request.
“I would rather the mayor open up Waipio (Peninsula Soccer Complex) for club league to start. There is a key tournament in March, the Las Vegas Showcase, that is huge for the girls’ recruiting process. I have spoken with numerous parents and they would forego the season if there are no playoffs,” he said.
The hard truth is one that seasoned soccer families know well.
“It just doesn’t make sense. Every sport in Hawaii has different ways to college. Football and baseball rely heavily on high school sports, but soccer is primarily club. I’m not saying high school has no value, but if there’s no state tourney and potentially no OIA tourney, (a regular season) has little to no value when it comes to scholarships.”