In 2020, COVID-19 wreaked havoc on sports near and far. Athletics will continue to see changes off and on the field this year and beyond.
On March 13, 2020, the end of the spring season for high school sports was happening, and nobody knew it.
In the following weeks and months, COVID-19 shut down all athletics, kicking off a cascade of changes both on and off the field. Schools, coaches and athletes adapted.
As the fall season began, the Florida High School Athletics Association and Orange County Public Schools discussed what steps were necessary to keep the season alive, including its crown jewel of football.
Discussions led to new restrictions put into place such as mask wearing, social distancing and limited crowds at games. And although those decisions were difficult, nothing was more challenging than trying to get people to think differently about how the season should look, said Doug Patterson — the senior administrator for athletics and activities at OCPS.
“This has just been a pandemic that none of us has been through before,” he said. “I think that it has been something that has constantly changed as it continues to evolve with what the best practices are. The biggest challenge is that we have had to teach our people of a different way of thinking — the normal way that you have done things is not how we can execute our game plan with our practices, our games and everything we do during a normal season.”
The havoc on the season is the most obvious challenge that many student-athletes faced — with some seniors losing their last year of sports — but what isn’t as obvious is the effect COVID-19 has had on recruiting; especially for those in the 2021 and 2022 classes.
During a press conference on Early National Signing Day, University of Central Florida head coach Josh Heupel revealed how his Knights football program was dealing with recruiting. Unlike previous years, the program only had a handful of commits from Florida and cast out a larger net.
“Obviously (it was) a really unique year as far as recruiting and your ability to have in-person contact and be able to sit with them and their family at their home — or have them in for official visits,” Heupel said. “But through the unique process of recruiting this year, I do feel like I got a chance to really get to know kids and find out their make-up and kind of find out what their drive is as well.”
In fact, in-person recruiting visits for Division I programs is on hold until April 15 — something that significantly affects the 2022 class.
But even bigger: The NCAA approved to give all collegiate athletes — Division I to III, NAIA and NJCAA — an extra year of eligibility. Although many coaches support the extra year, it has created a headache for both colleges and high school athletes looking to play at the next level.
“It really hurts teams like FCS and Division II, because all of these schools — even NAIA — have granted the extra year of eligibility,” said Brad Lord, who now serves as the football operations and athletic collegiate placement director at Foundation Academy. “Now, some of the big schools are talking their seniors out of coming back for the extra year. But say it’s a Power 5 school and they have 35 scholarships available for freshmen. Depending on how many seniors stay for the extra year of eligibility and who they want to stay for the extra year, that number (35) could be cut in half. So the effects are major.”
Because of this and lost revenue, there won’t be nearly as much money available, which means fewer options than what there normally would be, said Windermere Prep basketball coach Brian Hoff.
Hoff said he believed the Class of 2021 will feel the most effects. However, the Class of 2022 also will suffer consequences in changes to recruiting.
Normally, the recruiting process really starts during an athlete’s junior season. However, that hasn’t been the case for today’s juniors.
“Typically in the fall, we would have had college coaches in and out of our gym, and with COVID this year, that couldn’t happen,” Hoff said. “Our two juniors who are playing a ton of minutes right now — Jayden Williams and Drew Kousaie — would be on the radar for some folks. It’s changed; we’re going to have to do more by film until they can get out.”
What’s more, some athletes may decide to go the junior college or prep school route to get in some extra experience and make up for lost playing time before transferring to a higher level. That option also means that the transfer portal will factor into the recruiting process.
“That transfer portal is going to go absolutely nuts,” Lord said. “That’s the other thing that coaches will have to see — who is going into the portal before they offer the freshmen. What I see is recruiting will be behind.”
INTO THE UNKNOWN
As the winter sports season continues into 2021, the start of the spring season now is upon us, and right now, the county is still figuring out its plans for the new year, Patterson said.
“We’re preparing for the spring that we are going to be in the same climate we currently are,” Patterson said. “Our spring sports start right when we get back from the winter break, so we are finalizing our guidelines now, and that will be presented to the group here within Orange County.”
While the county looks to keep seasons as safe as possible, there’s no doubt that games will be canceled — something many schools such as Windermere Prep already have experienced. Although the Lakers haven’t had any issues with COVID-19, other programs they were supposed to face have, leading to canceled games.
Just as it has been for the last several months, nothing in the future is certain, and that requires patience and a flexibility to get things done safely. At this point, that’s all they can ask for, Hoff said.
“We have our protocols that we adhere to pretty strictly,” Hoff said. “All the administrators and all of the coaches around town are doing a good job just getting games in as safely as possible, and I’m happy to see it for the kids.”