JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Let the games begin.
The Florida High School Athletic Association board of directors voted on Friday to allow sports to start on Aug. 24, capping a wild back and forth that has consumed high school sports conversation all summer.
The item, tabbed Option 1 on the agenda, allows schools to begin practices that day and decide by Sept. 18 if they plan on competing in state series playoffs. The vote passed 11-5 during a morning meeting in Gainesville, the third such board gathering since July 20.
Regular season games will be able to start Sept. 4, a week earlier than initially proposed during the last FHSAA board meeting on July 23. The decision went against its own sports medicine advisory committee, which unanimously recommended that sports not start until three to four weeks after students had returned to campuses.
The momentum to start the season Aug. 24 had intensified in recent weeks, with Gov. Ron DeSantis and Senator Marco Rubio both publicly speaking out in favor of moving forward. Social media campaigns had ramped up, too. An online petition to start on that date had surpassed 41,000 signatures as of Friday morning.
First Coast High School coach and athletic director Marty Lee said that it’s a win for the students who now have a target date to look forward to and know that a season is going to happen. But Lee said the Sept. 4 start date for games was too soon.
Normally, there is an acclimatization period where athletes can’t get into full pads until the sixth day of practice. The first game will take place when teams should still be in the ramp-up period.
“I’m happy with the decision, but I will tell you, after thinking about it, I wish we’d have pushed it back a little more. And I’m on the [football] coaches advisory committee,” Lee said. “My fear is this; If we start and shut down, what happens with football. I’m glad for the kids to have a season. I know the kids are ready. I just wish we’d have pushed the start of the season back.”
Mandarin football coach Bobby Ramsay said getting things finalized felt like closure, but he wasn’t certain about starting regular season games Sept. 4.
“I mean if they want us to play Sept. 4, I am not very comfortable with that at all. You are talking about a situation in the first five practices where you can’t have live contact. You can’t hit,” Ramsay said. “Even if you were to practice that Saturday ... basically your first full week in pads is game week.”
The meeting wasn’t nearly as contentious as previous sessions, but the medical angle was once again the sticking point.
FHSAA board members Chris Patricca and Mark Schusterman both made strong cases to listen to the medical advice and push back the start, but few shared their viewpoint.
The adjusted Option 1 calls for a 10-week regular season in football, essentially starting with Week 2 of a team’s current calendar. Board member Carlos Ochoa’s amendment added flexibility to the Option 1, saying the schools needed flexibility to start seasons when they felt it was possible to do so.
If schools in Miami-Dade County, for instance, have no realistic chance to play when other schools could, then that county could opt-out and still have a regular season outside of the FHSAA’s timeline. Counties could work with the FHSAA to design regional schedules.
Most school districts around the state have pushed back in-person learning due to COVID-19 enhancements on campus or safety concerns. It is likely that a portion of districts will elect not to start on Aug. 24.
Changes abound in the new scenario, which is sure to require some getting used to. In football, there are numerous changes.
• Every team that declares for the state series playoffs will qualify.
• Playoffs begin Nov. 13 in football, with state championships scheduled Dec. 17-19.
• District champions won’t be crowned.
• Playoff seeds will be determined by a blind draw, to be completed by Oct. 26.
In Class 5A-8A, 16 teams per region will qualify for the postseason for a 64-team bracket. In 1A-4A, eight teams per region will qualify, creating a 32-team bracket.
If there are more than that number of teams in a region, then Week 11 (Nov. 6) will be a state series play-in game.
Qualification for the state playoffs in all fall sports except football and volleyball remain the same. In volleyball, district tournaments will be seeded by blind draw, with the district champ and runner-up advancing to the playoffs. Previously, rankings points from MaxPreps were used.
Another perk for schools. If they elect to sit out the state series, they may play regular season games through the end of the state championship date in their respective sports.