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Collier County pushes back start of fall sports practices due to COVID-19

Greg Hardwig
Naples Daily News

Collier County joined many in the rest of Florida, announcing it is pushing back the start of fall public high school sports practices due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mark Rosenbalm, the county public schools' coordinator of interscholastic athletics, said via text Wednesday morning that fall sports practices will start Aug. 24 "at the earliest." 

Later Wednesday, Rosenbalm said a plan on how to proceed will be discussed.

"We're going to figure out how we're going to do this," said Rosenbalm, who had met with activity coordinators from the seven public schools — Barron Collier, Golden Gate, Gulf Coast, Immokalee, Lely, Naples and Palmetto Ridge — Wednesday morning. "We'll meet with the administrative team and then develop our plan moving forward."

The Florida High School Athletic Association's Board of Directors had voted in a nearly five-hour meeting Monday night to not change its original calendar for fall sports, meaning schools had the option of starting fall sports practices on the first allowed date, which is July 27.

The FHSAA Board has scheduled another meeting for 5 p.m. Thursday. It had indicated on Monday that it would do so in order to go over recommendations from the FHSAA's Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. The SMAC, made of doctors and athletic trainers, voted 16-0 on its recommendations presented at Monday's meeting that included at the least delaying football and volleyball, which it said were sports that had more contact and therefore more prevalent in the possible spread of the coronavirus.

Rosenbalm also was a member of the FHSAA Fall Sports Task Force that had recommended a multi-faceted proposal with staggered start dates to give counties an option based on their respective coronavirus prevalence. The Board voted down that recommendation Monday night.

"I want to get something towards normalcy on our campus,"  Rosenbalm said. "We'll continue to condition our athletes right now with the guidelines we have in place. The start date being pushed back will help us in developing a plan to put in place.

"We'll continue to monitor the FHSAA, along with the Department of Health, along with CDC guidelines to implement a reopening plan with a safe return for athletics in our schools." 

The state reported 173 new cases of COVID-19 and five additional deaths in Collier County on Wednesday, bringing the total over 4½ months to 114 who have died and 8,249 cases. Lee County had 270 new cases and one additional death, for a total of 13,395 cases and 245 deaths.

On Tuesday, following the FHSAA Board's decision Monday night, many county athletic associations responded to the FHSAA Board's decision by announcing they would not start on July 27 due to rising coronavirus cases.

The School District of Lee County has not made a decision, or at least not announced one.

Bishop Verot teams will continue conditioning Monday despite a statement from the Diocese of Venice announcing earlier in the day it will not start practice that day, Verot athletic director Jason Baumgardner said. 

Meanwhile, Evangelical Christian athletic director Scott Guttery said the Sentinels will practice Monday.

Many counties in the state have had workouts in phases depending on the status of the coronavirus in their counties. Collier and Lee public schools both have done so and were in a phase that allowed indoor workouts, including in weight rooms. Private schools in both counties that aren't under those same mandated public school guidelines also were having workouts to varying degrees.

Opinion:FHSAA board decided behind closed doors to continue as normal

Collier County schools recently pushed back the start of school for its students a week to Aug. 19. On Monday, Lee County superintendent Greg Adkins proposed delaying the start of school until Aug. 24 or 31, with an emergency school board meeting to discuss that set for 2 p.m. Thursday.

"Since we pushed our school start dates back, we did feel appropriate to push back our start date for fall sports as well, remembering that our student-athletes are students first and then athletes," Rosenbalm said.

Rosenbalm's announcement on the delay to fall sports applies to public schools, so private schools such as Community School of Naples, First Baptist Academy, St. John Neumann, and Seacrest  don't fall under that. Of those, Community School, First Baptist, Marco Island (which is a public charter school) and Neumann all play FHSAA football.

Community School athletic director Bart Weiss and Neumann athletic director and football coach Damon Jones said they were still having meetings regarding how they will proceed, and First Baptist athletic director and football coach Billy Sparacio did not respond to a request for comment.

Fall sports are football, boys and girls cross country, boys and girls golf, boys and girls swimming, and girls volleyball. Lee County also has boys and girls bowling in the fall.

Football teams were scheduled to play preseason games on Friday, Aug. 14, with the regular season beginning Aug. 21, so those games will have to be delayed or canceled. 

"How that's going to affect our schedule, we don't know yet," Barron Collier football coach Mark Jackson said.

Jackson hopes that the virus numbers improve enough so some sort of season can be had safely.

"I just want it to happen for these kids," he said. "They deserve a senior year."

The other fall sports were originally permitted to begin their regular seasons the week of Aug. 17, so that also will be delayed.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed that the start of the season has been pushed back and am concerned about what it will mean for the rest of the fall season," said Barron Collier boys and girls swimming coach Matt Nelson, who led the boys team to a state title and the girls to a runner-up finish last year, via text. "However, the health of our athletes and, by extension, everyone they're exposed to, is of paramount importance and I'm glad the school district has public safety at the top of their priority list."

Reporter Adam Regan contributed to this article.

More:FHSAA board will take closer look at Sports Medicine Advisory Committee's recommendations at next meeting