BILLERICA – The recent announcement by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that high school sports would return for the fall season, albeit in a somewhat modified format, was welcome news to players, coaches, athletic directors and parents throughout the state of Massachusetts, and Shawsheen Tech was no exception.
The return of sports this fall brought tremendous excitement to all involved in the athletic programs at Shawsheen, however, it also came with the reality that while sports are back, they may not look quite the same as we are used to. And it also came with the reality that everybody involved in participating in high school sports throughout the state will need to be prepared to adjust to the new guidelines set forth by the MIAA and DESE in order to make those sports as successful and enjoyable as possible for all of those involved.
Chief among those guidelines of course was the decision by the MIAA and DESE that Fall Football and Fall Cheering will NOT run during the traditional Fall season, but have instead been deferred to a “new” season, commonly referred to as Fall II, which is estimated to run between February 22nd and April 25th, 2021. For Shawsheen Tech that left Boys and Girls Soccer, Boys and Girls Cross Country, Golf and Girls Volleyball as the sports of choice for the fall season. And it also left the administration at Shawsheen with a decision to make about which sports they felt would be safest to run for their students.
In that light, the Shawsheen administration, led by new superintendent Brad Jackson, made the decision to offer Golf, Cross Country, Boys Soccer and Girls Soccer during the traditional 2020 Fall Season, while moving Volleyball to the new Fall II season. Once again, the fall sports that will take place will do so under some strict guidelines in order to best provide a safe playing environment for the student athletes.
Among those guidelines set by the state is that sport will be limited to a maximum of ten competitions, with at least one competition per week for Cross Country, Boys Soccer and Girls Soccer taking place on a weekend. (Golf is exempted from this rule due to limited weekend availability of courses). Many of the sports, particularly soccer, will also experience changes to how their game is played in order to follow social distancing protocols.
It will certainly be different, but the bottom line for Shawsheen and other schools in the state is that sports are back, and modified or not, that is great news for the Rams student athletes, according to Shawsheen athletic director and head football coach Al Costabile.
“We are very happy to be back playing. We are excited to have some sports back and to be headed in the right direction,” Costabile said. “It’s a good thing for the kids. Sports provides such great opportunities in so many ways for our students, be it health wise, attitude or so many other things. It can really be a plus for our student athletes.
“The most important thing is we are back playing. Just thinking back on the spring season and to see that canceled and how difficult that was for those kids, you don’t want to see that happen again.”
With that being said Costabile knows that the return this will not be perfect, and that there is plenty of work to still be done in order to make things run smoothly when practices officially begin on September 21st. But he is counting on the contributions of the entire school community in order to make things work.
“A big factor in all of this is that there are a lot of modifications that have to be followed by players, coaches and spectators,” Costabile said. “Everyone will have to sacrifice a lot. It will be the ultimate team effort. That includes things like wearing face masks and social distancing. People have to be ok with those things. And I think the sooner everybody conforms to it, the better it will be for everyone.”
In a letter to the Shawsheen community, Superintendent Jackson laid out some of those expectations and sacrifices, which includes limited spectators, as well as no school provided transportation to and from games. In his letter Jackson stated, among other changes that:
1. For safety and operational reasons, Shawsheen will NOT be able to provide transportation to games and practices. Parents/Caregivers will be responsible for arranging all transportation to practice and games for their student-athletes.
2. To minimize risk to our student-athletes and coaches, the number of fans who can attend a competition will be limited to immediate family/caregivers and no more than two additional guests per athlete. All fans will be required to wear masks when on Shawsheen property and fans are expected to maintain a minimum of six (6) feet social distancing from one another.
The lack of transportation of course makes it more difficult for student athletes to get to their games, particularly on the road, but Costabile says it a necessary sacrifice for both safety and practical purposes.
“Because there is a limit on how many kids can be on a bus, it is more complicated than ever because bus companies would be more strained than ever. This just makes things safer and more reliable,” Costabile said. “Sometimes it is difficult to get one bus for transportation, and now with the social distancing that would be required, we would need two buses instead of one, which would be very difficult.
“Beyond that, it is just one more way to keep our kids safe. It is a sacrifice that we will all have to make, but for the safety of the kids, I think it is a necessary one.”
Among the biggest changes for the fall season will be multiple rules changes for soccer, including no slide tackles, no headers, no defensive walls, corner kicks now indirect kicks and that an indirect kick is awarded if you place your hands on any part of an opposing team member’s body.
There will certainly be a learning curve in adapting to the new rules, but for Shawsheen Girls Soccer coach Doug Michaud, any discomfort due to the modifications to the game is outweighed by the fact that his team is lucky enough to be back on the field this fall.
“It is great to be back, especially for a lot of our girls who lost their spring season which was very tough on them,” Michaud said. “They waited all summer to find out what would be happening and I know they are very happy to be coming back. We have 13 seniors coming back and I think they are excited to build off a very good season last year, and are excited to get going.”
As for the multiple rules changes, Michaud knows there will be an adjustment period, but it will be the same for all teams, and he is sure his team will be able to adapt in time.
“I think our focus will be just keeping the ball on the ground as much as possible, and then of course the spacing of people and keeping people six feet apart during indirect kicks,” Michaud said. “One of the things that will be interesting will be having no headers. If you get a ball chipped over your what is a defender going to do but head the ball. It is probably the right play because at least it stops play, but I also saw where if you do that too many times you will get a yellow card, so hopefully people don’t use it to their advantage too much.”
Shawsheen Cross Country coach Pat Kelly and his team won’t be dealing with nearly as many rules changes as their soccer counterparts, but he knows it will still be an adjustment period for he and the other coaches, along with the student athletes. Regardless of any changes, Kelly, like Michaud is simply happy to be back coaching his team.
“I’m thrilled. It’s exciting that the kids get to have a season. High school sports are very important for kids,” Kelly said. “It helps in so many ways, and is so beneficial for kids to participate.”
And while the changes will not be as drastic for cross country as for some other sports, some adjustments will have to be made. But Kelly is more than happy to adapt if that means a return to competition.
“For us, things will be fairly the same. There will be some changes, like no running in groups and starts and finishes will certainly be different, with staggered starts,” Kelly said. “We, along with a lot of other schools, will have to change our course in order to allow for social distancing while passing. But we are fortunate where we have a campus where we are able to make those changes.”
One thing that might be more of a factor in cross country than in some of the other sports will be the athletes off season preparation for the upcoming season. Basically, if an athlete has put in the miles of training over the summer, they might be at a great advantage. Or, it could also work in the opposite direction. And it also changes how Kelly and other cross country coaches will approach the season.
“I think it changes our approach a little bit, just because of the way it is set up. Normally there are championship meets at the end of the season, so we want kids to be at their best on the last day,” Kelly said. “Without that this season, you need very race to be your best race, because your record will determine the league championship. I really hope that kids were running in the off season and staying in shape. The team that has worked hardest in the off season is going to be able to come out of the gates flying and have a huge advantage,”
The decision to push volleyball to the Fall II season was a difficult one in some ways, but according to Costabile, it makes all the sense in the world, not just for the safety of the student athletes, but for the entire student body at Shawsheen.
“I like volleyball being switched,” Costabile said. “A lot of people are using their gymnasium for reopening the school. The gymnasium provides a great opportunity for social distancing for all of our students, so we want it to be available to help keep our students safe. Also, with volleyball being an indoor sport, they won’t be so affected by the weather then they try and start their season on February 22.”
Of course, weather will be a factor for football as well other sports that will be getting underway on February 22. Costabile, who is the Rams Football coach as well as being their athletic director understands why the decision was made to move the sport to the Fall II season, but he also sees the potential for some very challenging weather conditions.
“I have been an athletic director for a long time and when spring sports start in the third week of March, more often than not, they are delayed because there is snow on the ground, so I can imagine it being very difficult to start in late February,” Costabile said.
Another factor that Costabile and other football coaches will need to adjust to whenever their season does start will be potential rules changes to their sport.
“There will be a lot of modifications, just like soccer and other sports, and the game may be unrecognizable in some ways,” Costabile said. “They haven’t come out with the modifications yet, but I would think they will be very detailed and the game will be very different.”
Whatever changes are made to football and to other sports, the most important thing to Costabile and the rest of the Shawsheen administration is that sports are back for their student athletes, and they are thrilled to see those athletes back on the playing fields of Shawsheen, while also understanding there might be some trepidation among parents allowing their children to participate.
In his letter to the Shawsheen community, Superintendent Jackson closed his statement with this thought.
“Ultimately, the decision regarding whether or not your student will participate in either Golf, Cross Country, Boys’ Soccer or Girls’ Soccer lies with you, the parent(s) or guardian(s) of our students,” Jackson said. “We have worked hard to put together a plan that reflects our focus on student and staff safety while recognizing the importance of maintaining a sense of normalcy for our students in general and reflecting our belief that interscholastic sports plays an important role in many of our students’ lives. Go Rams!”