High School Sports

Nabors: Did New Jersey just release the blueprint for fall sports in Illinois?

Montini's DiAndre Harris runs the ball during a home game Oct. 25.
Montini's DiAndre Harris runs the ball during a home game Oct. 25.

This week has been quite the wild ride if you're even remotely invested in prep sports returning to Illinois this fall.

On Monday, programs were allowed to begin expanded workouts with the start of the IHSA's Phase 4 Return to Play Guidelines. Many began to schedule camps, tournaments and 7-on-7s.

By Thursday, those plans were thrown into flux as the IHSA rolled back its Phase 4 guidelines, prohibiting physical contact while citing an increase in positive cases of COVID-19 among high school teams around the state as the reason for the revisions.

Suddenly the prospect of no fall sports became very real again.

But New Jersey, one of the hardest hit states during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, provided a glimmer of hope Friday.

According to NorthJersey.com, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association released its Return to Play model for fall sports Friday with competition beginning Oct. 1 (Sept. 28 for girls tennis) and concluding Thanksgiving weekend. Practices for fall sports would begin Sept. 14.

For football, this means a six-week regular season followed by a truncated three-round postseason.

With 500 IHSA playoff eligible schools in football, teams would need to be divided into regional grouping of eight teams, and a few would have only seven. In a six-week season, every team wouldn't have the opportunity to play everyone else, but each class would have eight divisions, and only the division winner would advance to the postseason. Similar tiebreakers to the current system could be used to break any potential ties.

With the IHSA planning to make a decision on fall sports soon, New Jersey's plan got me thinking: How would this work in Illinois?

Let's start with football.

The six-week regular season would fit with Illinois' current model. The regular season would start the week of Oct. 2 and conclude with playoff pairings being announced Nov. 7.

Three playoff rounds would take us through the Thanksgiving weekend, with eight teams qualifying in each of the eight classes. Only 64 teams making the postseason isn't ideal, but that is likely the best-case scenario for football this fall.

Now for the other sports.

Perhaps the IHSA could be a bit more aggressive than New Jersey was here. How about a phased approach with golf, tennis and possibly cross country starting Sept. 1, with boys soccer and volleyball to follow in mid-September?

This approach would give officials time to determine how schools are coping with social distancing requirements and determine whether any spikes are occurring within schools because of increased athletic activity. It's entirely possible we see an early rise in positive cases and the thought of any fall sports goes right out the window.

And this plan doesn't account for the extremely high probability that a team will need to forfeit a contest or contests when the inevitable positive test crops up. There's still a ton to figure out.

But New Jersey's plan at least gives us a starting point, something to aim for. Right now, that's about the best we dare to hope for.

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