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Local coaches excited after Whitmer, MHSAA reinstate season

News File Photo Posen High School running back Mark Wisniewski (6) attempts to evade a Kinde-North Huron tackler during a 2018 playoff game in Posen. The Michigan High School Athletic Association announced on Thursday the reinstatement of the 2020 fall football season after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order lifting restrictions on high-contact sports.

For the last few weeks, Eric Mitchell, like many high school football coaches in Michigan, has been holding out hope that his team might be able to still take the field this fall.

The Alpena High School football coach’s cautious optimism was rewarded on Thursday when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued Executive Order 176, effectively paving the way for the return of high school football in Michigan this fall.

Whitmer’s executive order lifts restrictions that previously prohibited football to be played, and the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Representative Council reinstated the season Thursday after Whitmer’s order was issued.

“We’re excited,” Mitchell said. “Like we said a few weeks ago, we were just kind of waiting to see what would happen. We’re ecstatic and patiently waiting to see what happens next. We weren’t super optimistic before, but still hopeful. A lot of information has come out (since the MHSAA’s initial decision). Other states are playing football, and we’re happy we get a chance to play again.”

The executive order also allows the immediate start of volleyball, girls swimming and diving and boys soccer throughout the Lower Peninsula, most of which had been under restrictions to deter the spread of COVID-19.

Schools in the state’s Region 8, which includes the Upper Peninsula, and Region 6, which includes Northeast Michigan schools such as Alpena, Posen, Rogers City, Hillman, and Atlanta, have been able to play volleyball, swimming, diving and soccer since Aug. 20.

The return of teams to the gridiron is welcome news for football players, coaches, and fans who saw their hopes for a fall season seemingly dashed a few weeks ago when the MHSAA, in order to deter the spread of COVID-19, announced the season would move to the spring.

Football players will get a chance to break out full pads this season after all, and a shortened football season will begin in two weeks. Practices will begin next week, and the first games of the season for 11-player and eight-player football teams will begin Sept. 17-18, with a limited number of fans in attendance.

With the reinstatement of the season, football teams will be able to practice two days in shoulder pads and helmets starting on Sept. 8 before adding full pads on Sept. 10.

Teams are able to pick up their existing 2020 schedules starting with Week 4 and will be able to play a six-game regular season before the postseason starts.

Schools are not required to play boys soccer, volleyball, and girls swimming and diving this fall, but the MHSAA says schools can only participate in postseason tournaments in those sports if they play in the fall.

For the first time ever, every football team will be included in the state playoffs, which will begin on Halloween weekend. Teams will advance through the usual postseason progression with the eight-player finals being held on Nov. 27-28 and the 11-Player finals being held on Dec. 4-5.

“Thirty-three other states are currently participating in all fall sports, and the MHSAA and its member schools are committed to doing this as safely as possible,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said in a press release. “We are ready to again provide those experiences to students and communities that have hoped for a return of some normalcy. Given the challenges of online education in many school districts across the state, providing sports and a daily routine may be more important than ever in motivating students and providing a safe outlet for physical activity, competition and socialization.”

All other tournaments for Fall 2020 will be conducted as previously scheduled.

The MHSAA’s decision in August was not entirely surprising, after several major football conferences, including the Big Ten and the Mid-American Conference, announced their intentions to play in the spring.

Still, it was a disappointing and somewhat puzzling decision to local coaches, who wondered how they could effectively pull off a spring season in northern Michigan, where cold temperatures, frost, and snow-covered fields often linger into late March and early April.

Several coaches also wondered about players being more susceptible to injuries such as concussions on hard ground, especially in a sport with so much physical contact.

Now, they won’t have to imagine what-if scenarios for spring and can focus on getting their teams ready for a quick return to the field.

“We got the news about 4 o’clock and I gathered my coaches at the house about 4:30 to get together what we need to do to prepare our kids,” Alcona coach Jason Somers said. “We’re excited, and I know the kids are excited. It’s a relief (not playing in the spring) because, for us, anytime you’ve got to send 17, 18-year old kids into the unknown, the results can be kind of scary.”

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