After switching from football to boys soccer last season, St. John’s Catholic Prep senior Liam McCarthy returned to the school’s football team this year.
“I didn’t feel like I was big enough for football,” McCarthy said. “So I took a year off, did some conditioning over the summer, gained a couple pounds, a lot of muscle, decided to come back, and I’m loving it.”
No doubt, McCarthy felt ready to play some football this fall. The question was, would he be able to?
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association and Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland — the leagues for St. John’s boys and girls teams, respectively — postponed fall sports indefinitely on Aug. 13. Not surprisingly, McCarthy feared he might not get to play football this school year, suffering the same fate as spring athletes who saw their seasons wiped out by the health crisis.
So like every other fall sports athlete at his school, McCarthy was elated when St. John’s announced its Return to Play plans for fall athletics on Monday. The school’s fall teams can begin competing as early as Oct. 26.
“I’ve been waiting for it,” said McCarthy, who also plays for the Vikings’ basketball team. “I was concerned I wasn’t going to have a senior year for this sport.”
The move comes after the governing boards for the MIAA and IAAM voted on Friday to allow member schools to have an open fall season.
“This means that schools are free to schedule practices and competitions as they see fit,” St. John’s president Dr. Tom Powell said in a release from the school. “This also means that the rules and regulations of the inter-school competitions will be developed by each school.”
St. John’s has had students on campus for nearly seven weeks, utilizing a hybrid model, and the school has turned to local health officials for guidance as it expands opportunities for students.
“We began consulting with the Frederick County Health Department immediately as we explored options for this opportunity for our student athletes,” St. John’s principal Will Knotek said in the school’s release. “We believe their partnership and guidance for our reopening have been critical to our success, and we wanted to repeat that with the return to athletic competitions.”
St. John’s athletic director Pete Strickland said the fall season would be abbreviated, lasting about five or six weeks, and the schedule would be filled by mostly MIAA/IAAM teams.
“We’re hoping to give the kids a real representative year, it’s just going to be a little scrunched up,” he said.
While St. John’s will begin interscholastic competition during the week that begins Oct. 26, other MIAA and IAAM schools might not do the same. For instance, Gerstell Academy, a Carroll County team in the MIAA and IAAM, hopes to start competing in early November, according to the Carroll County Times.
“Not every school in both leagues is coming back and not every school is coming back in the same manner, hence the open fall season,” Strickland said. “There may be two or three teams in each league that are going to come back late or ready to start Nov. 1 .... but there’s enough to start the 26th, where we are.”
Such particulars didn’t bother St. John’s junior girls soccer player Laura Neumark on Tuesday. Hailing from a soccer family, she had been monitoring websites and other news sources for any indication that she’d get to play for the Vikings this fall, and she finally heard what she had been longing to hear. She figured her junior season was a crucial time period to get looked at by college coaches, and she missed competing with the Vikings.
“I play with a club team. But for me, playing with my school is just so much more fun,” said Neumark, who wasn’t sure which teams she’d be facing. “I think it’s still kind of up in the air. But we’re going to have a season, and I’m so excited. I’ll play against anyone.”
St. John’s took its first steps toward resuming sports over the summer, hosting outside athletic practices and conditioning with health screenings and limited participants practicing social distancing. Teams from all seasons, including spring and winter, have been conducting workouts on a rotational basis, although fall teams will now be working out daily. Of course, getting to start the season and being able to continue it depend on avoiding COVID-19 outbreaks.
“Our president and principal were really trusting of athletics and our coaches,” Strickland said. “Because if we had had a contagion in the summer when we started workouts, just skill workouts, of course, we would’ve had to shut down school, and obviously school comes first.
“To get that started right, which we have, knock on wood, is the key because obviously we’re the tail, we’re not the dog,” he said. “And with school starting, and again, we’ve had a hiccup or two, but it’s been really solid. Kids want to congregate with one another, and teachers have to keep reminding them. But overall it’s been great.”
He said staff members at St. John’s constantly remind students to wear masks.
St. John’s sports that will compete this fall are football, boys soccer, girls soccer, cross-country, volleyball and cheerleading.
“Those six sports are chugging away every day now,” Strickland said. “The kids are just more buoyant now that they’re going to be able to be out there.”
McCarthy echoed that sentiment when asked about the mood of the Vikings football team after hearing they’d soon get to play games.
“We worked together over the summer, and we’re excited to come back together,” McCarthy said. “I think we’re coming back together as a whole team next week. I’m excited about it, the rest of the team is excited about it. We can see everyone, finally get to work together as a team.”
St. John’s decision comes less than a week after Frederick County Public Schools decided to wait until the second semester of the 2020-21 school year to play any sports. The Frederick County Board of Education voted Wednesday to accept the FCPS Return to Play committee’s recommendation that the school system stay with the second-semester plan put forth by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, the governing body for the state’s public high schools sports.
That plan calls for the the fall, winter and spring sports seasons to be played in three, five-week increments between February and mid-June.
When St. John’s begins interscholastic competition during the week beginning Oct. 26, events it hosts will allow two family members, including legal guardians, for each athlete to attend.
“We’re going to allow each player on any team to have two,” Strickland said. “We’ll call them parents, but obviously we’re going to allow it to be a grandmother, a mother, what have you. Our opponents, we’re hoping they’re going to be the same. And if they do, that’ll be great.”
But as Strickland said, the MIAA and IAAM will allow each school to make its own decisions on such matters, and those decisions will likely be heavily influenced by the health situations of areas where schools are located.
Spectators will be screened as they enter SJCP events and must wear masks.
The MIAA and IAAM has also released guidelines for the winter sports season, saying preseason activities could begin on Jan. 4 and that the season is scheduled to conclude by Feb. 28. Like the fall, that would be an abbreviated season — winter practices normally start around Nov. 4.
Strickland said it appears the spring season would operate on a timeline similar to past seasons.
“All of the schools and all of the teams were interested in trying to make them whole again after a lot of spring disappointment,” Strickland said. “So probably they’re going to have the full season, [starting activities] around the middle of February and ending up the first couple weeks of April.”