Decision time on start for high school sports arrives for FHSAA

Fleming Island linebacker Jourdan Haynes (30) tackles Atlantic Coast quarterback Ridge Jacobs in the second quarter of a Week 10 game. Fleming Island won the game 41-17. (Ralph D. Priddy, Contributed photo)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – High school athletics across the area remain in much different places in their return to sports during a global pandemic.

On Monday, we’ll get a glimpse on just how much of a reality starting high school sports on time is.

The official start date for high school sports practice in Florida remains July 27, one week from Monday, although that seems to be an extreme best case scenario as districts around the area are in far different positions of what they feel comfortable doing.

The area should have an answer by early evening Monday as the the Florida High School Athletic Association is scheduled to vote on fall plans. The organization has called an emergency board of directors meeting for 5 p.m. Monday. Executive director George Tomyn has expressed his desire to keep the FHSAA calendar as close to normal as possible, which would mean a July 27 practice start date.

Is that realistic?

Considering that some area counties are still at Phase 2 of their reopening plan, and others, like Miami-Dade, aren’t even permitting on-campus workouts, that is, at best, wishful thinking.

Duval County had targeted last Monday as its date to enter Phase 3 of its athletics workouts process, but getting there remains a work in progress, said district athletic director Tammie Talley. She said that Duval is in a holding pattern at this point as the county awaits word from the Florida High School Athletic Association on the start date for fall sports.

Duval County’s Phase 3 would have allowed teams to begin to incorporate segments of live practices and scrimmages into their routines.

The FHSAA Fall Sports Task Force has held three meetings in the past month and suggested to explore the idea of moving the start date back to no earlier than Aug. 10. Certain areas of the state have experienced massive spikes in COVID-19 in recent weeks and aren’t close to any sort of return.

“We were told we’re doing a good job, following CDC guidelines, following protocol,” said First Coast High School football coach and athletic director Marty Lee. “That being said, we’re still in Phase 2. We’ll meet again this week.”

Columbia County permitted athletes to begin voluntary workouts in mid-June, but Tigers football coach Brian Allen has been overly cautious in his approach. Allen initially postponed workouts and set July 6 as a date to reassess the situation. As cases continued to rise, Allen scrapped workouts through July 27.

Allen said that under current guidelines, he needed 13 coaches or assistants to oversee Columbia’s 130 players — one coach for every group of 10.

“I knew that was going to be tough for us, just with what we get on a typical summer day,” he said. “I know a lot of other programs have gone [to workouts]. This is more so with me erring on the side of caution instead of jumping in this thing headfirst with no plan to keep coaches and kids safe. We’re not testing like college and pros are. We’re taking temperatures [of players]. You can say social distance. You can say only groups of 10, but when they’re leaving, they load up in cars four and five deep. When they’re waiting for rides, it’s 10 or 12 of them together.”

Clay County shifted into the third phase of its four-tiered reopening last Monday, but there isn’t an abundance of difference between the second and third phase at this point said John Sgromolo, Clay’s district athletic director.

“Phase 3 is a lot like Phase 2. There’s still a screening process, cleaning measures, limitations on what they can and can’t do,” he said. “The big thing here is that Phase 3 isn’t some sort of wide-open thing. It’s still restrictive. Clay County will not be ready for Phase 4 until the FHSAA declares an official start date.”

The official start date has been a point of contention across the state.

One week from when fall practices are supposed to begin, there is significant angst on that. The FHSAA has said it hopes to stay as close to its original calendar as possible, but coaches and athletic directors locally have expressed serious doubt on that, especially with certain pockets of the state unable to even have students on campus.

“It’s been good to have the kids back, the kids are eager to get going,” Lee said. “We get a lot of questions about why kids can to go to parks to play baseball or can go play 7 on 7 or AAU basketball and can’t get on campus and do the same thing.”

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.