Youth sports coaches, officials weigh options after Whitmer calls for pause

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After complying with protocols to ensure the fulfillment of a safe spring sports season, local youth and high school coaches and officials reacted to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's request Friday morning to pause all practices and games for two weeks.

The governor urged the action with the hope of fighting a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Whitmer also asked schools to shut down in-person learning and restaurants to halt indoor dining.

The announcement came just seven days after an executive order went into effect that required all non-school youth athletes age 13-19 to test weekly in order to participate. That order was slated from April 2-17. 

The boys and girls high school basketball seasons are wrapping up this week with state finals.

High school girls basketball teams were competing for state championships as Whitmer made her announcement Friday. The Michigan High School Athletic Association boys basketball finals are scheduled to play out Saturday at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

MHSAA director of communications Geoff Kimmerly said the basketball tournament would continue and that schools would make determinations on spring sports (baseball, softball, golf, tennis, lacrosse, girls soccer and track and field) in the coming weeks.

MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl issued a statement, noting the intent to continue spring sports.

"With the continued mitigation efforts that have been in place since January for winter sports, we will continue to play as safely as possible," Uyl wrote. "The efforts by staff of the MHSAA and Breslin Center have been extraordinary in following all safety protocols as we complete our basketball season. The basketball Finals will conclude all winter sports, as well as finishing all indoor high school sports for the school year. The current MDHHS emergency order from March 19 remains unchanged. Spring sports can continue with weekly testing as required by MDHHS during weeks where schools are practicing and/or competing. This is based on all remaining sports being outdoors and spring sports have the fewest contact sports when compared to other seasons. School districts will make local decisions for the coming weeks on spring sports based on local conditions and circumstances. If a school district wishes to pause activity, the MHSAA offers the following for consideration by member schools.

1. All spring MHSAA tournaments will be held as scheduled. Schools may voluntarily delay practices and competition in some or all sports with no impact on MHSAA tournament participation this spring.

2. If practices and/or competitions are held, weekly antigen testing must occur.

3. Remember that regular-season games delayed or rescheduled can be played up until the MHSAA Final in each sport.

4. Strongly reinforce all existing protocols including proper wearing of face coverings and sanitization. Again, our plan remains that all spring MHSAA tournaments will be held as scheduled."

The Catholic High School League is one MHSAA-affiliated organization that's announced a decision to proceed with its spring season.

"After careful consideration, the CHSL has decided to continue to trust the MHSAA and NFHS safety protocols that are in place for athletics and will continue to conduct weekly testing for our high school athletes," league director Vic Michaels said. 

With the shutdown being voluntary, more study may be necessary, Ypsilanti Lincoln athletic director Chris Westfall said.

"If the superintendent feels we're in a safe place and we've been doing the right things and we choose to continue, then we're fine acting independently," he said.

Some coaching outdoor sports question the requested shutdown. Utica baseball coach and teacher Mark Moehlig said that the baseball diamond should be the least of concerns for mitigating the spread.

"In baseball, we're not by each other. That doesn't make sense to me," Moehlig said. "If anything, the time off from sports, these kids are gonna go hang out with friends, they're going to go to parties."

Moehlig, who also coaches football at Warren Mott, said that the decision to nix sports would likely be a result of schools finding it hard to explain why in-person learning is shut down if sports are not.

"It's getting to a point that so many kids are getting sent home because of contract tracing, that there's then 50 percent of kids in they shut the school down," Moehlig said. "Then sports gets, 'Oh, shut the sports down.'

"Why'd you shut us down? We're outside playing right field and center field, and in the classroom, everybody's two feet away from each other."

While school-affiliated sports leagues have been dealing with testing and contact tracing since fall, Whitmer's testing order that went into effect last Friday raised a new challenge for club and recreational youth sports.

With little time to spare until their respective spring sports started, organizers and officials worked to ensure they could follow the testing requirements that would allow the kids to play.

This included working directly with the state to gain certification for administering and reporting tests, ordering testing kits, and organizing with their respective leagues, clubs and parents to ensure that all kids had the chance to participate in compliance with the order.

Michigan State Youth Soccer Association vice president Anthony Spica said that while spring break brought about a "light week" of testing, he spoke with one club official who administered approximately 70 tests without a single positive result.

After taking these steps, Spica said that he believes the MSYSA and its clubs will be able to continue their seasons safely, despite the concerns outlined in Whitmer's request.

"We're outdoors, we've got testing in place, we've got mask requirements in place," Spica said. "Our coaches in our clubs have all been trained on protocols in regards to if a player's not feeling well.

"We feel really comfortable."

South Oakland County Soccer, part of MSYSA, plans to continue with its season this weekend. 

Meanwhile, Birmingham city officials announced on social media that they will pause use of all recreational facilities for organized youth sports from now through April 25.

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

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