IRHS summer conditioning

Indian River High School athletes perform conditioning exercises as summer training for the school's fall sports begins, with precautions in place, including limiting training groups to 'pods' of 10 athletes and wearing masks when they're not actively working out.

In a virtual meeting that saw more than 100 people logged in to listen to the discussion on Tuesday, Sept. 8, the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association’s (DIAA’s) Sports Medicine Advisory Board spent more than two hours filling in a lot of details about how to allow student-athletes to return to their fields or courts of choice, sooner rather than later.

Simply put — and we’re paraphrasing here — If you want to play, wear a mask. Well, that and make sure you continue to social distance.

Since March, when schools and sports were shut down across the state — and country, for that matter — due to the global pandemic, student-athletes in Delaware have been chomping at the bit to get back into action. Tuesday night’s meeting may have paved the way for that return.

The biggest suggestion from the advisory board for student-athletes playing medium-risk sports — a designation from the executive order issued by Delaware Gov. John Carney in conjunction with the Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH) — is that they have to wear a mask while they are participating in practices and games. That recommendation also included high-risk sports, such as football and wrestling.

Ultimately, the final decision to restart sports in the state falls on the shoulders of the DIAA Board of Directors, which was set to meet on Thursday, Sept. 10, after the Coastal Point’s print deadline for this issue, but our online story will be updated with information and their decision should they vote on a return to play.

Dr. Michael Axe of First State Orthopaedics, chairman of the DIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Board, was a big supporter in recommending that all sports return to play, especially football, as long as the coaches and student-athletes follow all of the recommended guidelines and protocols established.

“I feel that the football coaches have done a great job of making football as safe as it possibly can be,” said Axe during the meeting. “There are adjustments in just about everything now. The recommendations from DIFCA [Delaware Interscholastic Football Coaches Association] have been far-reaching. I’m sure it’s going to be a ‘Chinese fire drill’ when it first starts, but I think they’ve done their job. They’ve convinced me that they’re not going to have too much contact time. I believe they’ve earned the opportunity to try.”

Locally, Indian River High School Athletic Director and sports trainer Todd Fuhrmann, who serves on the sports medicine advisory board, said that he felt like the meeting went well, and that the committee laid the groundwork for proper safety recommendations for the DIAA Board of Directors to consider a return to play.

“I think the meeting went well, and there was a good deal of discussion on proper safety recommendations,” Fuhrmann said. “I can’t say if it opened the door. … I can say that after the meeting there are now recommendations to follow if sports were to start early. Moving forward will be up to DIAA and others to determine the recommendations and how to implement them if starting early.”

Just last week, Carney designated football and wrestling as high-risk sports, and said the State would allow them to be played, provided players wear masks during competition and follow the protocols set forth.

Among the items that were discussed during the meeting Tuesday night were:

• Dr. Bradley Bley, a Delaware orthopedic specialist, started off with points concerning student-athletes’ depression, anxiety and other detrimental effects of COVID-19.

• The committee went over possible recommendations as far as student-athletes with health risks such as asthma, heart issues and sickle cell, that possibly could require clearance from their physician in order to play while wearing a mask.

• For soccer, they agree to suggest going forward with four 20-minute quarters that will include a five-minute break between quarters with a normal halftime break for rest and breathing. That is a change from the normal two halves of 40 minutes. It was suggested that no more than 20 minutes be played at a time while wearing masks.

• The committee also recommended that masks be worn for all sports while playing, except for those deemed low-risk by the governor’s mandate, which includes cross-country, track and swimming.

• There will be five-minute breaks between sets in a volleyball match in order to take mask breaks, as well as for rest and sanitation.

• The committee recommended a three-week preseason for all sports, with the exception of football, which will require a four-week preseason to prepare. That is due to training and instruction on the “Heads Up Football” program to help prevent head injuries, while also providing additional time for conditioning.

• The committee also talked about the use of mouth guards and how it will effect breathing for student-athletes who are wearing both the mouth guard and a mask. They did not vote anything into existence, as they want to wait for some advice from medical professionals and dentists.

• They agreed to recommending a four-ball rotation for sports such as football, soccer and volleyball to allow for those items to be sanitized regularly due to the amount of contact with several players.

• The committee also discussed the idea of staggering practice times for all sports in order to decrease student-athlete foot traffic with regards to social distancing. Ultimately, they said they felt like each facility was different, and would allow for each school’s administration and athletic staff to regulate how they proceed.

The DIAA Board of Directors was expected to revisit the potential of playing fall sports during their monthly meeting on Thursday, Sept. 10. The board had voted in August to allow for fall sports to be played sometime in February, but with the ever-changing situation — and a large vocal contingent of parents, student-athletes, and in some cases even politicians that support the idea of letting them play now — it has prompted this re-visit to the fall season discussion.

There are several online parent groups that continue to fight for and support the return to athletic practices and competitions, with a rally held recently in Dover.

In a statement released recently the state’s athletic governing body, DIAA officials said, “DIAA remains committed to protecting the physical well-being of all student athletes and ensuring fair competition among member schools.”

Axe did point out that, based on the guidelines in place, his thought process and recommendation was solely due to the DIFCA assuring him that its members would adhere to guidelines, and that he had every intention of making them follow them.

And while masks will be required for all sports that are medium-risk and above, the committee pointed out that there have been studies conducted that show continuous physical activity — running, in particular — should be limited to 18 to 23 minutes at a time. This was why the committee agreed that soccer be broken down into the four 20-minute quarters during this uncertain time, rather than the usual two 40-minute halves.

The focus by the committee to limit activity to less than 20 minutes at a time also prompted the recommendation for field hockey to go to four 15-minute quarters, rather than two 30-minute halves, but that was already set to be implemented as of this season, so there was no need to suggest a change.

With the ever-changing times, it’s possible that the protocols and requirements could be adjusted further as the school year moves forward, with regards to winter and spring sports seasons. However, student-athletes in football, field hockey, boys’ soccer and girls’ volleyball in the fall will be required to wear a face mask at all times during practice and competition. The only fall sport that would be exempt from wearing masks would be cross-country.

The Sports Medicine Committee includes Axe, Bley, Fuhrmann, Dr. Julie Moyer-Knowles, Tom Beddow, Dr. Joseph Laws, Dr. Joe Straight, Dr. Brad Sandella, Dr. Ken Rogers, Dr. Lynn Snyder-Mackler, Lori Hoffman, Barbara Cilento, Mandy Minutola, Patrick Kane and Jeremie Axe.

Staff Reporter

Jason has been in journalism for 20 years. He moved to Coastal Delaware in August 2017 with his wife, Jessica, and their daughters, Kylie, 17, and Grace, 12. He has a passion for high-school sports and especially values the relationships that builds.