It’s been over six months since we have seen a high school sporting event be played. That wait may be over in a little more than two weeks.
In the age of a COVID-19 pandemic, all of the fall sports will all have a different look. Soccer is no different.
Soccer players have been conditioning since the beginning of July. That conditioning continues — along with non-contact skillwork that began on Aug. 29 — in cohorts of 10. It’s basically been the same players doing both in those small groups to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.
“The kids have enjoyed being back for sure. We couldn’t have regular tryouts, we couldn’t really make any cuts,” Staples girls soccer coach Barry Beattie said. “As long as everybody is taking the guidelines seriously and doing what they should be, hopefully, we can get to the games. But it will be very different, that’s for sure.”
Beattie said he had almost 70 kids try out. He said he has enough coaches to monitor the seven cohort groups daily for the Wreckers, a Class LL state tournament semifinalist last season.
The Notre Dame-Fairfield girls only need two cohorts — there are 20 kids on the team — which makes things easier. Notre Dame coach Wayne Mones said nine of those 20 are freshmen.
“They are very excited to be out there playing,” Mones said.
The workouts for each cohort group has been for one hour: 30 minutes each for conditioning and the non-contact skillwork. And that skillwork must be done with everyone in the cohort social-distancing: remaining at least 6 feet apart.
“Now, we can look at kids in groups of 10 rather than 50 and give each player a proper look. It’s not the worst way to do it, to be honest,” Weston boys coach Kevin Fitzsimmons said.
Farmington boys coach Nick Boorman said the program took advantage of the extended conditioning/tryout period by looking further at their work ethic, decision-making skills and coachability, among other things.
“Due to the pandemic and training restrictions we have found a way for everyone to be a part of the program this year,” Boorman said. “Some players will make the playing roster while others will be on a training team. All players will have high expectations and be expected to excel on and off the playing field. The coaching staff feels that it is important for the players mental and emotional wellbeing and the overall fairness to structure it this way.”
The cohorts of 10 per team remains in place until Monday, Sept. 21, when, if the COVID metrics are still low, teams can proceed to larger groups for longer practices.
“If they told me soccer would be 7 vs. 7, I would take it because I spent March to June staring at the four walls in my house,” Beattie said. “I want to keep our kids active, keep providing them some kind of social development along with all of those things that are so key for these teenagers.”
Hand boys coach Greg Cumpstone said the team works on “shadow-play drills” which gives his cohorts work on building its offense from the back and making the quick transition. But doing so is without facing any type of opposition.
“There’s no real opposition in anything we are doing. You can’t have them go against any actual people. Coming up with new exercises and new drills every day has been challenging,” Cumpstone said. “One of the positives is getting the players to simulate some of the ideas we want on the field, all of our tactical nuances before the season starts. So going into the season will be much more seamless in that sense.”
Cumpstone also noted that in addition to the cohorts of 10, the town of Madison has required the cohorts also be in alphabetical order — another challenge the Tigers have had to adapt to.
Soccer scrimmages can begin no earlier than Sept. 26. Assuming the regular-season games do begin on Oct. 1 as scheduled, bench players will not only social distance, they also will be wearing masks.
In all likelihood, you will not see too many pre- or post-game handshakes between the teams or with the officials. The pre-game meet between captains, coaches and officials will likely preclude some of the captains from joining it and to be held at the center of the field.
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association imposed a number of new rules. Those include: corner kicks are now indirect kicks; no headers or slide tackles are allowed, resulting in either an indirect kick or a direct kick for the opponent, respectively; no throw-ins, instead using kick-ins with opponents giving 10 yards of space; no goal kicks beyond midfield; and no defensive walls on a direct kick.
The CIAC soccer committee has not gone to those extremes.
“Rule changes have been discussed but at this point we do not feel it is necessary to alter game play,” said Gregg Simon, the associate executive director of the CIAC and a member of the CIAC soccer committee. “We are constantly monitoring state metrics and rule changes in the future would be dictated by changing conditions in our state.”
Soccer officials will not be responsible for monitoring what goes on the sideline, as in if players are social distancing or wearing masks. They will have enough to worry about on the field.
“I feel on the field as if I have a certain amount of control keeping my distance from players and coaches,” said John Shirley, the state rules interpreter for soccer. “ I feel a certain level of comfort that I can control risk to myself and risk to the other participants.”
Shirley is also the interpreter for the Coastal Valley Board. He has officiated games for approximately two decades.
He knows of officials who have opted out of working this season due to COVID-related concerns. Others are sitting out for job reasons or recuperating from injuries.
Will there be a shortage of officials?
“Right now, it appears there will be enough officials to cover interscholastic games,” Simon said. Simon cited having no college or prep school soccer games to officiate will help matters. But some days will be busier than others and could be a tall task if you throw in sub-varsity games.
Shirley has his own concerns about how physical situations are to be handled between players.
“We are going in somewhat blind. We can try to anticipate what will happen, but I don’t know how players and coaches will react,” Shirley said. “Hopefully we’ll receive further guidance before or during the season on maintaining distance between players when the ball is not live. For example, two players jawing at each other from close range would be unacceptable and could be subject to a caution.”
Players do not have to wear masks while on the field of play. Shirley said officials should wear masks to and from the field, during the pre-game conferences and when speaking with coaches. But he said he will not be wearing a mask while officiating a game.
“I will be breathing heavily and I wear glasses. They fog up,” Shirley said. “I have not met or talked to an official who said they will wear a mask on the field. It’s too difficult.”
Officials will be able to use electronic whistles if they choose. Shirley said those whistles can be used by officials if they do choose to wear masks on the field.
Schedules will be regionalized. So you may be facing your border rival twice a season like normal, but won’t be getting on a long bus to face a non-conference foe. Most regular-season schedules will be made up of the schools in closest proximity and last about a month.
The postseason tournament format is yet to be determined, but the CIAC has noted that more than likely, every team will have a chance to compete, regardless of record.
So the traditional state tournament format will not be used in November.
“To me, it’s a real letdown. I love competing for championships and playing in big games,” Mones said. “Look at what happened to our girls basketball teams (Notre Dame was the top seed in the Class M state tournament, reached the quarterfinals, only to have the remainder of the tournament be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and the teams in the spring who didn’t get any games.
“We haven’t gone through that, so we are lucky to get what we have. You have to look at it that way also. But that still doesn’t preclude me from wanting to play the better teams and wanting to play for championships.”
The Hand boys won’t have that chance to win a fifth straight Class L state championship this season. Cumpstone said whatever tournament format is offered, he would ask his players just to put themselves into a position to be able to win whatever format it is.
“The kids can only win what is in front of them, even if it is a three-game jamboree,” Cumpstone said. “The players need to have the mentality that whatever is being decided is out of our control. We can control how we prepare and how we play in whatever capacity it is.”
Said Fitzsimmons: “We feel like we were going to be good this year with seven seniors and a strong group of juniors. We felt we could compete for the SWC and a state championship. I feel bad for these kids who have worked so hard.”
Scott Ericson contributed to this story.