The outdoor playing fields and indoor gymnasiums of most high schools around the Valley — and the state — have been silent and empty for most of 2020 after campuses were ordered closed in March because of the coronavirus outbreak.
No Friday Night Football. No packed stands for basketball or volleyball. Baseball and softball games disappeared. Even sports that may not necessarily draw large crowds, such as golf, cross-country running and water polo, had a chance to attract a crowd at all.
The state office of the California Interscholastic Federation recently released guidelines for all 10 of its sections, including the LA City and Southern sections that Valley schools play under, that cautiously suggested sporting competitions could return by January 25, 2021. Yet that return date could now be in danger after the announcement this week by Gov. Gavin Newsom that could extend the current “stay-at-home” order beyond the Dec. 28 expiration date as the latest surge of the COVID-19 virus still hasn’t peaked.
Some area coaches contacted by the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol newspaper believe high school athletics are going to resume at some point in 2021. When exactly that happens, and what those sporting competitions will look like is anyone’s guess. What the high school sporting landscape will look like period is anyone’s guess.
“I don’t know,” said Derrick Taylor, Taft Charter High boys’ basketball coach, who has won section and state championships. “I can’t really wrap my hands around it. I sit back and look at it, and I think private schools could have the ability to recover quicker because they are their own particular entity; they’re managed as singular, where the public schools are managed as one massive organization. But, how long will it take for them? And with the public schools, the recovery may be tied to how many kids we lose.
“The only answer I can give you is one of those ‘all-over-the-board’ answers.”
Jon Ellinghouse has developed a highly successful football program at the private school Sierra Canyon High that has won section and state titles. Five players from his 2020 team signed letters of intent to play at universities like Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. But he doesn’t know what fate awaits this current group of players.
“There are no handbooks for how to deal with something like this,” Ellinghouse said. “One of the things I’ve learned is you can’t plan for everything; you have to be fluid and try to adjust to what happens. But, as being somebody whose family looks to for answers all the time, it’s tough to not have one. We have kids whose lifelong goal was to get that scholarship and play at the next level. It was tough to not be able to give them any sort of answers.”
Stephanie Boshae, the softball coach at Chavez Learning Center, didn’t get the chance to see her team defend the City championship it won in 2019. And it hasn’t been easy keeping her players engaged in trying to stay ready. The players had just started some winter workouts after the Thanksgiving break when her principal said such activities on campuses were being shut down again.
“I try to stay optimistic. At the same we want to keep people safe,” Boshae said. “So I’m pretty torn between playing and whatnot. I literally take it week-by-week to see how the virus is doing.
“It was heart-wrenching to see my seniors get their final year taken away. But we’ve never had anything like this. My seniors were sad and confused; they didn’t know what to think because [when schools were first shut down in March] the virus was new and we were just about to start our normal season. And who would have thought it would have lasted this long?”
At least Boshae, Ellinghouse and Taylor have experienced championship seasons with their teams. Bucky Brooks is in his second year as head football coach at Granada Hills. He’s continuing to rebuild the program there. But he, and his coaching staff, didn’t plan on doing so primarily through Zoom meetings.
Still, he said, it is important the players do not sense any defeatist attitude from the coaches.
“Being leaders of the program we said the kids would take their cues from us. And if we act all frustrated and pessimistic about it and when football was going to be played, [the kids would, too],” Brooks said.
“From a personal standpoint, it took more time to focus on the things that really mattered in the program — creating the culture, creating and setting high standards for the kids, teaching the kids to hold themselves and each other accountable. But [despite the pandemic] I actually feel more optimistic about the team in terms of just who we have and what we are about on the inside than I felt last year. How that translates into a record, I don’t know. I just know this team is better prepared to take on the rigors of a season, mentally and physically.”
All of the educators also remarked that that 2020 is proof that teachable moments aren’t only for students.
“[This year has] taught me how fragile things are, how quickly things can change. How everything can get turned upside down in the blink of an eyelash,” Taylor said. “The lesson is to enjoy your experiences. Enjoy the ride with the kids, every moment you have with them. Take it in, and don’t be so full of yourself. Take in the whole experience and appreciate it as much as you can.”
Boshae agreed that “it has put life into perspective. At the end of the day, softball is just a game. But at the same time, when some of the kids didn’t have it, they felt kinda lost. Sports, for some of them, it is their life. I had to keep telling them there was a light at the end of the tunnel, that this is going to pass.”
And, being coaches, there is always a river of optimism flowing through their hearts and minds.
“You have to pay attention to the numbers and what’s going on. When you look at news and see we’re in the ‘purple tier,’ and the number of cases that continue to pop up daily, you have to be mindful of that,” Brooks said. “I don’t know if we will play right away. But you also have to look at ‘what if we do?’ We have to be ready. So, let’s use Jan 25 as a target date and if we have to move it after that, then we’ll be flexible. That’s all you can do.”
“I think there is a good chance we’ll play football at some point this coming year,” added Elllinghouse. “Do I think in the beginning of January we’re just gonna pop out of this? No. But I think we could play a minimized, five-game schedule starting in April, and possibly instead of playoffs have a “bowl game’ or something like that.
“If you look at other states that have [allowed some high school sports], obviously there have been some hiccups. But that’s the world we’re living in right now. There would be challenges with transportation and meetings. But the simple fact of being outside, in the open air, and wearing masks, I think that’s an environment we could work with.”