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IHSA defies state’s decision, says basketball season is a go

Staff Writer
Journal Star
Notre Dame's Noah Reynolds (4), the reigning Journal Stat Boys Basketball Player of the Year, celebrates a score against Washington during their Class 3A regional last season in Metamora.

PEORIA — The Illinois High School Association essentially posterized Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday, voting to carry on with boys and girls basketball seasons as scheduled.

That move came a day after Pritzker — giving the IHSA only a 15-minute heads up — announced the Illinois Department of Public Health had moved basketball from a medium risk sport to high risk, prohibiting games.

By ignoring the state's decree, the IHSA has essentially given individual school districts around Illinois the choice whether to play or not. Legal ramifications will no doubt be part of those decisions.

"Things evolved very quickly with Governor Pritzker's announcement (Tuesday)," IHSA executive director Craig Anderson said Wednesday. "The board was caught off guard by the (state's) movement of basketball from medium risk to high risk. We've tried to be good partners throughout the fall. ... I wasn't expecting (IDPH and Pritzker) to make such a drastic move."

The IHSA board moved wrestling to summer, and scheduled it to run April 19 through June 26.

The board voted to approve the IHSA's winter sport guidance for all low risk sports, including boys swimming and diving, cheerleading, dance, boys and girls bowling, and girls gymnastics. Those sports will be staged from Nov. 16 through Feb. 13.

But basketball season was the headliner Wednesday, bouncing back from what appeared to be a death sentence from the state the day before.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't surprised," IVC hoops star Kam Wollard said. "I think the IHSA stood up for the athletes. Yes, there is a risk, but I think the rewards are more. Whether or not the schools decide to play, I don't know, but I'm thankful there's a chance my career might not be over.

"It feels like someone finally stood up for us."

The IHSA chose to follow its own IHSA Sport Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) recommendations and will allow boys and girls basketball to begin practices on Nov. 16. Games can begin on Nov. 30, within an Illinois COVID Region or within a school's conference.

As a part of the mitigation plan, masks will be worn by all players, coaches, and officials during play. Anderson added that "media timeouts" will be called in the middle of each quarter, during which players and officials can socially distance, remove their masks, and catch their breath.

Anderson said he "doesn't anticipate ... conducting a state championship series with winter sports." Basketball and other IHSA sports will adhere to the state's current cap of 50 people at an indoor event. That includes, players, coaches, officials, trainers, operations people and administrators. That virtually rules out spectators.

All of the IHSA's guidelines will be on its website Thursday at https://www.ihsa.org.

The IHSA says it will be the decision of each individual school as to whether its basketball teams will participate.

"The Illinois High School Association Board of Directors made the decision today to continue with the IHSA basketball season as scheduled in 2020-21," read an IHSA statement. "In August, the board slated basketball to take place from November to February based on the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) assigning a medium risk level to the sport. The IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) offered additional mitigations, such as masks during play and social distancing on benches, that the SMAC believed would allow basketball to be played safely."

The legal aspect will be big. Will school districts follow the IHSA's green light, or bend to the governor's office?

"We’ve told school districts what the rules are and I think they all know," said Pritzker in a Chicago Sun Times story, in what seemed like a warning shot Wednesday night. "So IHSA may have their views of it but school districts know what the rules are and it’s unfortunate but they would probably be taking on legal liability if they went ahead and moved beyond what the state has set as the mitigation standard."

Anderson said he is confident in the research his medical advisors did, and the safety protocols the IHSA has in place. He says basketball contact days did not produce a spike in COVID cases.

"We don't want to be adversarial with (IDPH and Pritzker)," Anderson said. "But we feel this is for the betterment of our schools. It was time for us to make a change that provides an opportunity for the kids. We get reports that kids are troubled, kids are struggling. We need to re-engage kids.

“I get it that COVID is something to be concerned about. I know positive cases are currently rising. But if there’s a place where students should be competing it’s within schools, following our guidelines. We feel we can do it safely."

Could the state Board of Education cut funding from schools who don't follow the IDPH ruling?

"(Illinois Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz) said there could be ramifications for our public schools ... should we go ahead," Anderson said. "Those are decisions our boards will have to make. We think we can move forward safely, and we think the kids need it.

"It's a big deal to say to government officials and health departments that we are going to go a different direction from how you are advising.

"I don't know how that is going to play out for us."

IESA executive director Steve Endsley said Wednesday evening that his board will meet this week to discuss the events of the last couple days. For the moment, IESA will follow the IDPH directives.

That impacts boys basketball contact days, which begin Monday. With the state elevating basketball to "high-risk" practices can not include contact. Contact days are reduced to training and shootarounds.

"Basketball being moved into the higher risk category is indeed disappointing news," the IESA said in a statement to its member schools. "... the IHSA board strongly believes that high school students need to participate in education-based activities for their mental and physical well-being and that the IDPH totally disregarded the information that was presented to them by the IHSA as they made their decision to move basketball to the higher risk level."

Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or deminian@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.

The Morton girls basketball team get psyched up before the start of the Class 3A state title game last season at Redbird Arena in Normal.