Cautious Optimism for Prep Sports

Cautiously optimistic, hopeful and grateful.

This summarizes the feelings of local athletic directors, coaches and athletes as the Packerland Conference embarks on the winter seasons despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin.

“I’m happy but nervous at the same time,” said Southern Door Athletic Director Korey Mallien. Southern Door was the only school in Door County to field a football team during the fall and completed its abbreviated season without missing a game due to COVID-19 cases.

“I guess like anything else, there is always the concern that the disease and the way it’s spreading is always in the back of your mind,” Mallien added. “To be able to get through the fall season like we did gives me some reassurance that it can be done if you do it as safely as possible.”

As of Nov. 14, Wisconsin had reported 323,604 cases of COVID-19 and 2,748 deaths. The daily total of confirmed cases Nov. 14 was 5,581; the seven-day average was 6,576; and 2,000 residents were hospitalized throughout the state.

Practices for conference girls basketball teams began this week, and the season will begin Tuesday. Boys practices will begin next week, with the regular season starting Dec. 1. Wrestling will begin practicing next week, with the regular season starting Dec. 4.

Sevastopol and Southern Door have decided to play both nonconference and conference basketball games, but Gibraltar and Sturgeon Bay have opted for a conference-game-only schedule.

“I am excited to get our kids in the building feeling safe, comfortable and competing,” Gibraltar Athletic Director Peggy Tanck said. “I have been concerned about the mental health of our student-athletes. I hope this will move it forward with having a little bit more comfort with them.”

Mallien said that this decision to go ahead with competition didn’t come without due diligence and that administrators from every school in the Packerland Conference meet regularly to discuss processes needed to keep their athletes COVID-free. These administrators are also communicating with experts at Door County Medical Center to gather their input on the status of the pandemic.

Athletes will be required to have daily health screenings that include questions about their health, and temperature checks will be taken and charted. When teams go to games, they will be using a Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association tracking and tracing sheet, which verifies that schools have performed all of the required health screenings prior to boarding the bus. This information is exchanged with the opposing team and serves as verification that athletes entered the match or game healthy under the standards that are in place for COVID-19.

Although Southern Door’s gym is large enough to allow a limited number of fans to attend athletic events while observing social distancing, other schools with smaller facilities have opted to ban fans from attending games and matches and instead stream them on the internet.

“One thing that could shut it down would be if there was a massive outbreak within your school or on your team, much like you see in the college ranks,” Mallien said. “That’s the biggest threat to the season.”

Standards set for wrestling pose a different challenge, according to Southern Door wrestling coach Jerry Englebert. Like the basketball players, wrestlers are required to wear a mask when competing, which could create an additional distraction because of the close contact wrestlers have during a match.

“Wearing a mask will affect breathing, so conditioning will be important,” Englebert said. “My biggest concern is finding a good mask that will stay on to limit the stoppages, which can really affect the flow of a match.”

Additionally, large invitational meets have been canceled, and teams are permitted to compete in dual meets once a week. Traditionally, invitationals furnish wrestlers with as many as five bouts in one day and provide valuable competition outside of the dual meet schedule.

“The dual meet format – or more specifically, the lack of tournaments – will definitely affect training,” Englebert said.  “Distancing and trying to work in smaller groups also will be difficult. It’s going to be a season of constant change and adjustments.”

Grant Englebert, a Southern Door senior who has qualified for the last two Division 3 state meets, agrees that the changes in training and meets add more challenges. He added, however, that he’s happy to experience some semblance of a season.

“I had been signed up for preseason tournaments, and when they got canceled, I was pretty unsure of our season,” Grant Englebert said. “I think that especially this year, every match matters because we don’t know which matches will be guaranteed. It is important to treat every match like it could be the last.”

As with the football season, Mallien has a simple goal moving forward:

“[I’m hopeful we will] be able to get the events in safely, healthy and with limited interruptions,” he said.