Utah prep teams reveling in on-time return to the fields, courts

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Corner Canyon hosts Skyline in girls soccer on Thursday, August 6, 2020, as high school sports returns to Utah.

Timpview High’s volleyball players felt depressed sitting at home for the past few months without interacting with their friends and coaches. The coronavirus pandemic had not only canceled the spring high school sports season in Utah, but it was threatening fall sports as well.

But once they received approval to start summer training, Timpview coach Charmay Lee saw a significant mood shift in her players.

“We went from Zoom meetings twice a week in their homes with sadness and frowns on their faces to smiles and laughter being back in the gym,” Lee said. “These girls are not meant to be locked up and they need to be around their friends and have fun — especially now more than ever with all of the stress that COVID-19 has caused.”

While some uncertainty existed surrounding whether the fall sports season would start as scheduled — particularly after several football programs grappled with positive COVID-19 cases — that went away when the Utah High School Activities Association decided earlier this month to start on time.

Some fall sports have already begun their season. Other starts loom — including for football, which opens the 2020 season Thursday.

Not altering the fall season was a decision many coaches in the state agreed with.

“I don’t believe [in] delaying the season or canceling games at all,” Lone Peak football coach Bart Brockbank said.

The UHSAA held two meetings about starting fall sports on time. The first culminated in a vote to not alter the schedule. The second reinforced that vote, though executive committee members stressed the importance of flexibility in the event the coronavirus situation changes.

Positive cases in Utah have largely declined in the past two weeks, with the state health department reporting no new deaths and 376 new infections Saturday. Hospitalizations and the number of patients in intensive care have also decreased.

Much of Utah is still at the “yellow,” or moderate, risk level when it comes to COVID-19. A small group of rural counties are in “green,” or new normal. Salt Lake City, however, is in “orange,” or moderate risk. The Salt Lake City School District last week voted to not have in-person classes through at least the end of October, but said sports could still begin on time.

The UHSAA prepared safety guidelines for every fall sport. Some of the general protocols include:

  • No shaking hands before or after a game

  • Players and coaches on the sidelines are “highly recommended” to wear masks

  • Fans are “encouraged” to wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible

  • Any player, coach or fan who is sick won’t be allowed at practices and/or games

Spectators are allowed at games in so far as it’s allowed by the local government and health department.

With younger people representing the largest portion of coronavirus cases in Utah, coaches across sports say they are making it a point to continue talking to their players about following guidelines and staying safe.

“As a coach you have to constantly keep talking to them about distance,” Skyline girls’ soccer coach Yamil Castillo said. “We all have to get used to that. We are making sure all the rules are in place, checking temperatures, using a mask if [you] are traveling. Hand sanitizers are in hand before and after practices.”

Castillo said he constantly reminds his players of his own age and health risks, while also reminding them that if they are negligent, they are putting their loved ones at risk.

Lee said her team has a group chat in which the girls are constantly asked how they are feeling and are checked for symptoms. She added that their practices cater toward social distancing and some sessions have been held by position group only to keep the numbers low.

“We haven’t had any problems or issues,” Lee said.

For the most part, coaches appear satisfied with the guidelines the UHSAA put together. But not everyone feels that way.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Skyline bench watches game action as Corner Canyon hosts Skyline in girls soccer on Thursday, August 6, 2020, as high school sports returns to Utah.

Brockbank said he is concerned about the possibility of games being postponed or canceled because “there is not real protocol on how to handle basic situations.” He also does not seem to have much confidence in how the association would respond if players, referees or coaching staff test positive for the virus.

“I think the UHSAA is waiting for any instance in which it would be easier for them to cancel rather than work through a solution with reasonableness,” Brockbank said.

Murray football coach Todd Thompson thinks that while the guidelines make sense in theory, some of them might be difficult to enforce in practice. He pointed out that players maintaining 6 feet of distance on the sideline could be challenging because of the constant movement up and down the field that occurs throughout a game.

Most coaches that spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune reported that none of their players are opting to skip the fall season. But Castillo said some players decided not to try out because of the coronavirus.

“I support them,” Castillo said. “It is a personal choice.”

But while a plethora of distractions and uncertainties exist surrounding the upcoming fall season, the message coaches relay to their players is one of focus.

“It is our season. I am just trying to have them concentrate on football,” Milford football coach Thane Marshall said.

Syracuse volleyball coach Taylor Allen said he believes the UHSAA has done its best in trying to bring sports back. He also suggested that his team might have even benefitted from the conversations the players have had surrounding the coronavirus and following health guidelines.

“It’s crazy how political all of this has become,” Allen said. “And as a team we’ve decided to be more unified than ever before to stick through this time period together.”