As high school sports in North Carolina inch closer to a return this month, the N.C. High School Athletic Association came out with a pair of key updates last week.
One of the big questions about the condensed 2020-21 schedule was whether there would be a postseason.
That question was answered: Though it will be under a different format with a lower number of teams, there will be playoffs in every sport.
In addition, in response to lightened COVID-19 restrictions from N.C. Governor Roy Cooper, the numbers allowed for skill development and workouts have been raised to 50 people outdoors and 25 people indoors.
Of major interest locally, the WMAC (Tuscola) and Mountain 6 (Pisgah) conferences now have their schedules for the upcoming season. Let’s take a look at the latest news and notes from the high school sports world:
Haywood County Clash to happen
As mentioned, both Pisgah and Tuscola’s conferences have their schedules. For the seven-game football season, the WMAC will play six conference games with one nonconference game. All other sports will be conference only. The Mountain 6 will play two nonconference games and then conference games only for every sport, with postseason conference tournaments.
The WMAC’s allowance for a nonconference game answered the biggest local question about the new schedules: The Pisgah vs. Tuscola football game will be played. The cross-county rivals will open their season on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, at Pisgah Memorial Stadium.
“I think as a community and as a school, for the environment, that’s a huge thing that’s going to happen for our kids this year,” Pisgah High School Athletic Director Heidi Morgan said. “For school morale, for community morale, it’s going to give everyone a boost and something to look forward to. We’re excited to be able to host that this year. We’re not sure what the fan limitations might look like or even if there will be any at that point, but if there aren’t any fan limitations, I hope our stadium is packed with as many Pisgah fans as possible, and we’re there to support our team. I hope both fan sections are full.”
The big game, of course, will be the first high school game Haywood County will have seen in 18 months due to the pandemic.
That should make it even more special, and a story those in attendance will tell for years to come.
“It’s still six months away, so hopefully by that point we can push the limit as far as we can in terms of the number of people we can have in there,” said Tuscola Athletics Director Michael Belue. “For the crowd, the atmosphere and the financial stability that it’s going to bring Pisgah — we want them to do well. It goes such a long way in supporting our finances for athletics. All of that factors into it, and for it to be the first time that fans are able to lay eyes on their teams for 18 months, it just heightens and highlights the importance of the rivalry and the excitement that it brings.”
No other rivalry games
It’s not all roses with the new schedules.
Due to the size of the WMAC, all other sports besides football will only play conference games. That means that, with the exception of football, Tuscola and Pisgah will not play each other during the 2020-21 school year, something that doesn’t sit well with either school.
“That’s priority No. 1 for us in every sport, to play our cross-county rival, and just how special that is,” Belue said. “It’s tough to look at these senior baseball players and softball players and say ‘You didn’t get to play them as juniors because of COVID, and now you don’t get to play them as juniors because of COVID.’”
“We’re going to have kids come through here who never got to play a varsity game against their rival, because the last time they played them they were on JVs as sophomores. That’s tough. That’s the way it worked out, that’s the way our conference voted and we obviously will stand in line with the conference, but it’s not fun and my heart breaks for those kids that don’t get to play their rival two years in a row, especially their senior year.”
Let there be playoffs
While the formats will be different, and mostly determined by conference standings, teams will have the opportunity to compete in the state playoffs this season.
While there will be some sport-specific differences, such as tennis and wrestling only having individual playoffs, it will still give the student-athletes a shot at extending their seasons.
“I think it’s so important and critical for the times that we’re in to offer a sense of normalcy,” Morgan said. “Our kids are ready to be back in school. They’re ready to be back competing. That quite possibly will make this year very special, because we’ve all realized what you miss when you don’t have it. So I think that we’re going to be able to have playoffs gives them a purpose. They’re not just going to be playing to play, which I think they would do, but they have something to go after now.”
For seniors, having a chance to play in the playoffs is a shot at making additional lifelong memories.
“It’s great news that we’ve got going on with the shortened season and the seasons are all over the place,” Belue said. “It’s nice to know that we could at least have some form of normalcy for these kids, especially the seniors because it’s their last go around. I wouldn’t want to deny them a chance at the playoffs.”
Increased group s
With the governor’s lightened restrictions, the group sizes allowed for workouts increases significantly, with 25 allowed indoors and 50 outdoors.
While both schools will likely largely stick to their current pods and safety restrictions, the increased sizes do allow for more possibilities, particularly for football.
“We’re going to keep it fairly similar to what it has been,” Morgan said. “Our pods can get bigger, but we’re still going to make sure we’re being safe, keeping kids that are multiple-sport athletes, keeping them separate from others in case someone was to get sick that we don’t have the cross contamination. It does allow us a little bit more opportunity to do more skill development within the safety protocols and six feet. So it does open those doors.”
And, of course, any increase in what teams and schools are allowed to do is a step in the right direction.
“Baby steps are huge steps right now,” Belue said. “Anything we can d to to get this going in the direction of normalcy, we will take it for sure and be grateful for it.”