TRAVERSE CITY — Recent bouts with COVID-19 in schools across northern Michigan shut down in-person learning, after-school activities and dozens of sporting events since competition returned on Feb. 8.
At least nine area schools have seen positive cases and contact tracing cancel or postpone games in the last two weeks. The changes in several school’s schedules created a ripple effect on many more student-athletes and school’s ability to finish scheduled athletic events and reschedule contests with the postseason fast approaching.
Administrators and health departments are working hand-in-hand to make decisions about competition at the local level, according to Traverse City West athletic director Jason Carmien.
“The realities of the COVID pandemic are kind of setting in, where games are getting cancelled in different sports and there’s cases popping up in our community and other communities,” Carmien siad. ”You have to change and we were going back to that day-by-day type of mentality.
“What we’re doing is acting from a good place like we always have our students and safety in mind. And as long as we act from that good place, wherever we end up, we know we’re going to be right. Maybe it’s too safe for some people but its what in the best interest for the kids.”
The full number of cancellations because of novel coronavirus precautions statewide are not tracked by the Michigan High School Athletic Association until the postseason, according to Geoff Kimmerly. Area varsity wrestling meets, boys and girls basketball games and hockey games have been moved or canceled on more than two dozen occasions in the last two weeks alone — creating a crunch for officials, transportation and time. The shortened six-week season nears its closure and schools face new challenges.
Hockey regionals are set for March 15, wrestling districts March 17 and basketball districts March 23. That leaves teams like Charlevoix — whose wrestling team is under 10-day quarantine — no wiggle room before the postseason begins. Changing on the fly has become the norm over the past year and the winter season has been no different, especially when all it takes is one athlete to test positive before a wrestling match.
“It’s been like fitting together this massive puzzle and from a 30,000 foot view it’s been kind of a fun challenge trying to get everything together,” Charlevoix athletic director Travis Garrett said. “The camaraderie and the friendships, the relationships I’ve established with other ADs, especially in our conference, is just monumental in making this happen.”
Garrett said that finding new officials, making gym time for practices and games on the fly and altering transportation all brought challenges that are new even nearly a year into the pandemic.
Carmien said they’re seeing positive cases coming from activities outside of school and sports. Cases passed from outside of school that need contact tracing inside classrooms, weight rooms, buses and cars have forced cancellations all over.
A good and recent example of the ripple effect lies with Charlevoix. The Rayders had to move Friday’s home games against Elk Rapids to Saturday and away from their facilities after in-person learning was suspended to contact trace an outbreak that happened at the school. The Rayders’ games against Petoskey were then canceled because there were nonconference and won’t be made up. Charlevoix is not the only school to be forced to recreate a schedule for the fifth or sixth time this month.
TC West, along with Petoskey, Gaylord, Johannesburg-Lewiston, Manton and Suttons Bay, had games canceled because of cases throughout their schools. Independents like Lake Leelanau St. Mary felt part of the burden as non-conference games disappear and are replaced with conference matchups. Other schools must simply deal with often unexpected cancellations that are not sure to be made up.
Manton basketball missed nine days of competition after a player tested positive in the middle of the season. The test result came back after a weekend where the team didn’t gather, so they were able to backdate the quarantine a few days. It wasn’t just the Ranger’s schedule that felt the changes to the schedule.
“We kind of got a little out of shape,” Manton head coach Ryan Hiller said. “Last week we really keyed in every practice and our two games to just getting back in shape. We’re still out of shape, but not as bad as last week, I’ll tell you that.”
So many Big North Conference hockey games have been cancelled member teams are not sure there will be a conference title this season. Petoskey and Gaylord have each had four games canceled due to quarantine in the last two weeks, rendering the BNC schedule unbalanced. Athletic directors at Petoskey or Gaylord were able to be reached for comment.
The Highland Conference won’t have official basketball champions this season because games called off resulted in some teams not playing every league foe and numerous teams not playing the same amount of league games.
Mancelona athletic director Ben Tarbutton has been urging his students to strictly adhere to mask and distancing protocols to limit any possible exposure between teammates.
The Ironmen are having exceptional seasons in wrestling and boys basketball and Tarbutton says his athletes understand the importance of keeping the virus out of the locker rooms. The school had some positive cases threaten the beginning of the winter season but has been able to keep teams on track since.
“This happens quick,” Tarbutton said. “It’s not like there is one case and it’s controlled … it’s normally four or five on the same trip and then when you do contact tracing you are just done for two weeks. It’s a real tough situation but I think our kids have done a really good job of understanding the importance of what we need to do.”
The Ironmen boys basketball team has a chance at its first Ski Valley Conference championship, only raising the stakes for the school and many like it.
Officials shortages and the increasing unavailability of open competition days has even made it hard to reschedule for normal things like snow days that cancelled games, like in the case of Onekama. The Portagers had two games postponed because of snow and struggled to reschedule just two games, let alone up to 14 days worth like some cases. TC West didn’t make complete schedules in several sports to accommodate for what Carmien thought was almost inevitable. Trying to squeeze in the allowed three games per week in basketball and hockey and one quad per week in wrestling made it nearly impossible to make changes without significantly altering the landscape for conferences and schools.
“What we’re finding is that it is activities that students are doing outside of school, that are leading to cases,” Carmien said. ”As long as our families and our students make an effort and our coaches make good choices, we know the school day has proven to be to be safe and school sports have proven to be pretty safe.
“That’s something that people need to keep in their minds and that it’s worth it. We got to be super smart about how we handle ourselves in school, out of school on the weekends. If we want to see the finish line to all of our winter sports.“
James Cook contributed to this report
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