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Great Northern Conference contingencies: Athletic directors meet virtually to talk fall plans, particularly for football

Marquette's Kameron Karp intercepts a pass intended for Alpena's Charlie Williams on fourth down at the 2-yard line in the first quarter of their high school football game played at William R. Hart Stadium in Marquette on Oct. 4. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“It’s not what you can’t do, it’s what you can do.” — David Lindbeck, athletic director, Gladstone High School

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ESCANABA — Now nearly three months after high school winter and spring sports were canceled, the pain for athletes not being able to play has been felt by nearly everyone in the area sports community.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association first suspended, then later outright canceled the remainder of the school year’s sports season in mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the nation.

As summer arrives, attention shifts to fall sports, particularly football. It has been a huge topic of interest nationwide over the past few months as folks wait to see if the sport at any level will be played this fall.

Marquette running back Andrew Gale runs free during a high school football game played against Petoskey at William R. Hart Stadium in Marquette on Sept. 22, 2018. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

But for a pair of Upper Peninsula athletic directors, they’re not just sitting around and waiting, instead doing everything in their power to make sure local student-athletes get the opportunity to return to the gridiron.

Gladstone athletic director David Lindbeck set up a virtual meeting with other Great Northern Conference athletic directors on Thursday to discuss potential backup plans if the pandemic and/or the MHSAA presents stumbling blocks, such as travel restrictions or opposing schools being shut down if their case numbers spike.

Though the ADs plan for the season to go ahead as scheduled, multiple alternative plans were discussed.

“We’re looking at a number of different contingency plans,” Lindbeck said. “Obviously, Plan A is as is. If things go where there’s restrictions in travel, we want to be able to keep the status quo, keep all kids engaged and work with the GNC. We’re close in proximity and we want to be able to support any quick changes that could hurt opportunities for our kids.”

There are many unknowns for the next few weeks, let alone the fall. The MHSAA provided guidelines for the return of sports on May 29, then updated those Tuesday after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lifted Michigan’s stay-at-home order that was originally next week.

Athletes are now allowed to participate in outdoor activities and have gatherings of up to 100 people as long as social distancing takes place.

“Everything is going to look completely different this fall. We’re going to have a number of contingency plans with everything that we do across the board,” Lindbeck said. “Without going into specific details about what these plans would look like, the relationship that we have with the GNC is great.

“Giving the kids a noble opportunity as much as possible is our first priority. Things could start out normal or they could start out abnormal, so we want to have some of that groundwork laid out. We’re going to have some moving parts and some optimism for what the kids are going to experience….

“We don’t want to repeat what we did this spring. We don’t want to go into this school year and have the COVID(-19) spike back up and start knocking down our kids and putting our kids in a bad position in our communities.”

Escanaba AD Tony Perino, who was part of the meeting, referred to budget issues as a potential obstacle.

“A lot of schools right now are going to be having a tough time trying to survive with the budget deficit with the per-pupil funding,” he said. “Transportation might not be just an issue with COVID-19, but also in terms of budgeting.”

Because travel could be a potential issue, multiple ideas were tossed around at the meeting. One of those is GNC teams playing two games against each other.

“We looked at our schedules in the fall, and for instance, we go to Gladstone for football (this) year,” Perino said. “We looked at where we could potentially fit in the next game with Gladstone. We’re playing there in Week 4, so if we decide to go this route, we could play Gladstone at Escanaba in Week 7 or Week 8, or maybe even Week 3 or Week 1.

“We don’t know if downstate teams are going to come up here…. We don’t even know if Wisconsin teams are going to travel this far. So there’s a lot of what-ifs right now, and we really had to sit down and look at it.”

Another possibility that was discussed is playing for a U.P. championship if travel downstate is not permitted or simply impractical.

“The MHSAA might say they’re going to eliminate all state championships next year and keep it to conference play,” Perino said. “Who knows? It’s just so hard to say.”

In a worst-case scenario, the idea of splitting players up from Escanaba and Gladstone into eight-player teams was even discussed. That way, football could still be played remotely in Delta County if extreme travel restrictions are put on.

“Our region is much smaller, so if we are stuck, we could realistically give the opportunity to the kids to continue to play regular football,” Lindbeck said. “The transition from 11-man to eight-man is not difficult.

He added that Braves coach Jeff Hansen much prefers to play an 11-man season, though.

“That’s one of the last-case scenarios before we go to an intramural league or nothing, where we could zip that down and Gladstone and Esky could have a couple of eight-man teams to make that transition,” he said.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. All of the GNC ADs are cautiously optimistic there will be an 11-man season that is for the most part normal.

“I think we’re in a much better place than almost everyone thought we were two to three weeks ago,” Perino said. “I think it’s a very positive outlook for the fall, especially football. I’m very optimistic about it.

“Now, will that look like a nine-game schedule? That, I don’t know. But at least we’re moving in the right direction.”

The MHSAA has put all sports into three risk categories — low, moderate and high risk. Football is the only fall sport considered high risk, which is encouraging for other sports in that season.

“With those sports, we are much more regional, so you’re not going to problem-solve the same way,” Lindbeck said. “Because we’re so regional, the impact is going to be a lot less.”

Lindbeck also noted his fall sports teams will start their conditioning and lifting on Monday when the stay-at-home order expires.

“They’re going to be in small groups, they’re going to temperature check and they’re going to do their thing,” he said. “That’s exciting.”

Regardless of what the future holds, Lindbeck is excited to continue working with the rest of the GNC ADs to create the best situation possible for athletes.

“We’re all cautiously optimistic,” Lindbeck said. “It was a great meeting. We have some great camaraderie with our ADs…. We know how to problem solve, we know how to look through things with a problem-solving and forward-thinking mentality, and we’re ready to hit a switch at any time and get together to make something work.

“It’s not what you can’t do, it’s what you can do. That’s what we’re getting out of these meetings. We’re not going to take time to blame or make excuses or even have personal opinions about what’s going on in the world … we are problem-solving. This is what you got, these are the cards that you have, so let’s make something happen.”

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