Rebuilding America: Sports officials in South Texas prepare for new normal
In March and April a trip to the Cabaniss Athletic Complex would normally find a bustling area with high school athletes preparing for and competing in five different sports.
But for the last several months the facility has been quiet.
No pinging of aluminum bats.
No gun firing to signal the start of races on the track.
No cheering for soccer teams trying to qualify for the state tournament.
Instead there has been silence.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced Texas to shutter schools as they would have been returning from spring break in March.
They never reopened the rest of the academic calendar and University Interscholastic League high school competitions, including those in baseball, soccer, track, softball, golf and tennis never returned either.
While much of the time without athletics has been met with uncertainty, the picture is starting to grow clearer.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced the gradual opening of the state in phases, and after months of being shuttered, professional sports will have an opportunity to resume in the state at the start of June, along with organized sports such as Little League and sports camps.
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Though this does not guarantee that sports will resume, or specify how they will resume, it is an important first step toward the possibility there may be athletic competitions in the fall.
In the absence of athletics, school districts and universities have spent time preparing.
If sports are allowed to resume, will it be all sports?
Will it be only sports held outdoors?
Will spectators be allowed and at what percentage of total capacity?
All are questions still to be answered as the summer progresses and the number of coronavirus cases is continually monitored in cities, counties, states and nationally.
The Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks of the Texas League would be in the middle of play in the first half of the 140-game season in late May.
Instead the baseball season was halted before it started.
The Hooks, who are owned by and affiliated with the Houston Astros can only wait and see what Major League Baseball does and when the league deems it safe to begin play.
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Hooks General Manager Wes Weigle said there is still hope for a season, but they are waiting and watching what MLB will do. Rumors of the minor league season being canceled have surfaced but nothing is official, but there is not a drop-dead date on when a season could start.
Although the MLB, NFL, NBA and NCAA may consider playing without fans or with limited capacity, that prospect is difficult in Minor League Baseball where most revenue is derived from ticket sales.
The Hooks have worked to maintain Whataburger Field if and when the team is given the go-ahead to start the season.
The NBA was the first domestic professional league to suspend its season due the COVID-19 pandemic, but the NCAA was the first to outright cancel the remaining winter and spring championships, including the highly profitable men’s basketball tournament.
The NCAA made the decision in early March, just before the Division I men’s basketball tournament was set to have its selection show.
Conferences quickly followed in step and canceled their seasons and college athletics has been in a wait-and-see mode since.
“We are planning on being face-to-face this fall,” Texas A&M-Kingsville executive director of athletics Steve Roach said. “We are planning right now to play sports and have athletics running, and obviously some of those decisions will be dictated by parameters outside of us.
“Under this new normal we are living, when football reports back, there will be a lot of different protocols and things we’ve never had to worry about before. Meeting sizes, locker room space and things like that. That has been our primary focus right now.”
Roach said TAMUK is working on various plans and logistics to accommodate any social distancing protocols that may be in place in the fall, but it is hard to take firm steps in any direction before the Texas A&M University system, Lone Star Conference and NCAA make decisions.
“We want to get back, but we know that we need to make sure we protect our coaches, student athletes and staff,” Roach said. “We want to do it safely and make sure we don’t jeopardize anyone and anything.”
A&M-Kingsville is planning for and examining how seating at their facilities would have to be altered depending on what percentage capacity they would be allowed to hold.
As a school that does not sponsor football, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi does not have to worry about the logistics of dealing with a team that large, nor a football stadium crowd, but is also working through various contingency plans depending on what is allowed for fall sports.
A&M-Corpus Christi Director of Athletics Jon Palumbo said the school is trying to find best practices to implement for their fall sports athletes in volleyball, soccer and cross country, including the possibility of screening athletes, coaches and staff.
“We want to make sure all of our student-athletes are healthy when they get back and that we are monitoring them through their summer and preseason workouts,” Palumbo said. “We are working with people on campus to make sure we have a plan for all those scenarios. We are preparing as if we are going to play in the fall.
“We don’t have football but we are keeping a close eye on some schools that do and how they are preparing to use them as models for some of our fall sports.”
SOUTH TEXAS HIGH SCHOOLS
Texas high school received one of their first signs of a step toward resuming competition in the fall as scheduled on May 19 when the UIL announced that they were aiming at June 8 to begin “limited” summer strength and conditioning programs on campuses.
Many view it as a positive first step toward high school sports returning.
“(The announcement) injected new life for everybody,” London ISD athletic director Robbie Moreno said. “It has been kind of down — I think society as a whole. You are always looking for good news and this was good news.
“Whether it happens or not, spirits were uplifted.”
Flour Bluff athletic director Chris Steinbruck said the move was an important one to help athletes get physically ready after a period of reduced activity during the shutdown.
“Our fall sports — football, cross country, volleyball, swimming are going to require a level of physical stamina that can only be met with work to condition the body for competition,” Steinbruck said. “This is big to make sure kids are healthy and prepared.”
Alice athletic director Kyle Atwood said the district is looking at adjustments that may need to be made based on the recommendation of the UIL and TEA, but it is difficult to focus on it too much until definitive guidelines are set.
“Our superintendent has done a phenomenal job as we started working through all of this stuff,” Atwood said. “There are some adjustments that will probably need to be made, but if we pick something and put a plan in place, we may just be spinning the wheel. There are still so many questions.”
WILL THERE BE FANS?
Professional sports, such as German soccer’s Bundesliga, the Korean Baseball Organization and NASCAR have returned without fans and domestic sports leagues have talked of returning without fans or with reduced capacity.
A problem with limiting fans at the high school level is there is not the same amount of broadcasting of live events as there is at the college and pro level.
Parents and fans of high school sports would not have the same access to watch the game, if they were prohibited from attending.
“I’ve got three kids and I am looking forward to watching them play,” Alice’s Atwood said. “It is going to be difficult to tell someone they can’t go watch their 16-year old play.”
CCISD Executive Director of Athletics Brenda Marshall said the athletic department is assisting with graduations, which have been moved to the Cabaniss Multipurpose Stadium, which will give them a glimpse of how it might be to manage capacity.
“We will get a chance to see what it might look like to have groups of three, four or five stretched out with six feet between them,” Marshall said. “Some of what we are doing to help plan graduation in our stadium and having separation, we will possibly be able to utilize that information.”
Marshall said that as the summer progresses there will be more advisement from the TEA and UIL on what steps will need to be made to keep both patrons and coaches and athletes safe.
“You can think of every scenario and be totally wrong while you are waiting for what they are going to tell you,” Marshall said. “We have been talking at our office about what we might do, but just helping with graduation is helping us.”