The IHSA Screwed Baseball

The IHSA Screwed Baseball

The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced everything. It cancelled the spring sports season for kids of all ages, from Little League and soccer to high school and college baseball, softball, tennis, etc.

Sadly, the disease hasn’t gone away (wear a f***ing mask, people). And now we’re facing the consequences of that reality: fall sports are being significantly impacted as well.

While Major League Baseball tries to navigate their 60-game season, college football will be vastly different this year. The NFL has opted to not play any preseason games and players are opting out of the 2020 season daily. It appears the bubble approach employed by the NHL and NBA is working, but there’s a lot of hockey and basketball left to be played.

On July 29, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Board of Directors announced enormous changes to the sports calendar for high school in the state this coming school year. Football will not be a “spring” sport, meaning their season will be February 15 to May 1. How exactly kids are going to play football outdoors in mid-February in Chicago and the burbs is a bit laughable, but we’ll see how it plays out.

I feel for the kids playing football whose season just got moved back. The early period signing day for national letters of intent to play NCAA Division I football is December 18, 2020. The final signing date for Division I football is supposed to be April 1, 2021 – which appears to be right smack in the middle of the coming football season in Illinois. There will be no All-America games for Illinois student-athletes this year. And they’ll need to play their best to get colleges to sign up. Some players, including now-former Nazareth quarterback and Michigan recruit J.J. McCarthy, have already left the state to play their final high school season in the fall.

Here’s reality: high school football shouldn’t happen in Illinois in the fall. We can’t risk the health of the kids playing the game or the health of the coaches, refs and other folks associated with putting on a high school football game. It simply isn’t safe yet. You only need to look at what happened when Lake Zurich High School opened their summer sports camps in mid-July to see the reality. 36 students tested positive and they had to shut camps down almost immediately.

However, if football isn’t safe (read: you cannot avoid physical contact in football) there are other sports that have been deemed OK by health organizations, local and state governments and even the IHSA. On July 29, Governor Prizker identified sports including tennis, baseball and golf as “low-risk” sports that could begin/continue playing games.

In fact, many travel baseball programs have played during the pandemic. There have been tournaments all over Illinois since the beginning of July, and lots of teams have been leaving the state to play since late-May. My 9-year-old son Bobby has been playing since mid-June when the state opened doors for practicing.

But high school baseball didn’t happen in the spring. Class of 2020 seniors lost their senior season in every spring sport, including baseball. They had to; the disease was running wild and schools were reacting in real-time.

Now, the IHSA is telling the Class of ’21 that their senior season will run from May 3 to June 26. Baseball has been pushed back because football needs to be played.

Let me be clear: football and basketball drive the bus for sports at pretty much every level. I get that; the IHSA cares about football and basketball more than any other sport.

Their decision on the seasons was necessary for football, but their minimal effort to accomodate baseball screws rising senior baseball players. And it could have been easily avoided.

First, consider how many kids play football and baseball in high school. Usually those athletes have the entire winter off between sports; yes, many play basketball but there has generally been more time between the gridiron and the diamond than one weekend. Now, quarterbacks who pitch will have to dust off their curveball three days after throwing a touchdown. That isn’t an easy proposition.

There are also college recruiting considerations. Without a junior season, many kids are still trying to get college eyes on them. The travel season for high school age players started late with everyone else in the state and has been trying to catch up, but the Class of ’21 is at an enormous disadvantage when trying to get to the next level. Now, their senior season will begin after kids in many other states have almost completed their seasons.

It’s an awful, impossible situation. But there was an easy remedy sitting right in front of the IHSA’s Board of Directors.

Play baseball in the fall.

If the state deems baseball socially distanced enough to play games in August and September, the weather is certainly good enough that kids could have been on the diamond playing. Indeed, most travel seasons are still going today; the kids should be in shape and ready to go when the school open their doors.

The IHSA could have played a two-month baseball season from mid-August thru the end of September. Then the state playoffs could have taken place after a few warm-up games in the “spring” after football ended, giving kids an opportunity to play a more complete season and get their talents noticed at the next level.

This also would have given the kids something to play in the fall. As it stands now, there are only four “fall” sports in Illinois: boys/girls golf, boys/girls cross country, girls tennis and girls swimming. Boys have two sports options in the fall.

I have ot think this could still be changed if the IHSA wanted to do it. And ther students would undoubtedly be happy to play ball in a few weeks.

The alternative is sad, and it’s likely to become a reality for high school baseball in Illinois.

If kids want to get noticed, the travel season won’t likely wait for the high school season to begin/end at the end of June. Some kids may opt out of the 2021 high school baseball season, preferring to play a longer travel season beginning as early as February.

I spoke with a talented rising senior whose brother is on my son’s travel team at a game recently. I asked him about what he’s going to do; he’s absolutely on the track to play college baseball and could have legitimate draft aspirations down the road. His answers were interesting.

I asked him if he was going to skip his senior baseball season to play travel. He said he’s going to have to think about it because it’s important to play high school ball. However, he did indicate the longer season and ability to play in regional and national showcases would complicate his decision.

He followed-up by saying if he was a junior he would almost certainly opted out and played the longer travel season. Junior seasons are critical for kids who want to play at the next level; this year’s senior class wasn’t afforded the opportunity to make that choice because of COVID-19. Now, this year’s seniors will have to make a choice and many juniors will as well.

If the IHSA had made the 2020-21 baseball season a split endeavor with the regular season in the fall and the postseason in the spring, it would have eased the decision making of upperclassmen all over the state. And it would have given them the opportunity to be playing in an off-season, potentially opening more doors for recruiting to be more robust in Illinois.

As it stands now, high school baseball got screwed – both by COVID-19 and, now, by the IHSA. It’s sad, but it could be fixed.

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