Oak Park and River Forest High School football coach John Hoerster (center) leads drills with his players on the Oak Park Stadium field on Aug. 16 as his team prepares for its season opener later this month. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

The Illinois High School Association sports year began Aug. 9 with practices in football, boys and girls cross-country, boys and girls golf, boys soccer, girls swimming and diving, girls tennis and girls volleyball.

The IHSA is optimistic that it can have a fully normal sports calendar. However, with the number of COVID-19 cases on the rise largely due to the delta variant of the virus, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced on Aug. 4 a temporary mask mandate for indoor youth sports.

This applies to student-athletes participating in girls swimming and diving and girls volleyball. In the case of the former, competitors do not need to wear masks while in the water, but they must have them on at all other times.

The mask mandate does not apply to outdoor sports. Moreover, there are no capacity restrictions for any fall activity, and at this time there are no plans to require that spectators present proof of vaccination in order to be admitted.

The athletic directors at Oak Park and River Forest, Fenwick and Trinity high schools are hoping to avoid a repeat of the past year, when the schedules were severely condensed in all sports with some overlapping each other. There were also games canceled due to COVID-19 whenever teams had to quarantine, and attendance was either non-existent or extremely limited.

“Overall, we were able to get creative and give athletes an opportunity to compete, but in most cases, that competitive environment looked very different than what we were used to,” said OPRF Athletic Director Nicole Ebsen, who oversaw the program at Morton High School last year.

“I am super proud of our kids and coaches in how they handled the new protocols and procedures,” added Fenwick athletic director Scott Thies. “We also have great parents who had to deal with so much in a year filled with twists, turns and many unknowns.”

“Trust the process” is a well-known cliché when it comes to sports, and Trinity Athletic Director Ken Trendel believes that’s the biggest lesson administrators have taken away from the pandemic.

“I was proud of how our administration, teachers, staff, and coaches set the tone for a safe learning/playing environment for our community,” he said. 

While Ebsen, Thies and Trendel are all optimistic about starting and completing each team’s season on time, they also know that the delta variant of the coronavirus — considered to be more transmissible than the original strain — could adversely impact those plans.

“It’s definitely a concern, but this far along into the pandemic, I think we all know what needs to be done to keep safe,” Trendel said. “We need to learn from what has worked to slow or change the curve and will need to keep doing what we can to keep our community safe, especially our students and student-athletes.”

“I’m always concerned and vigilant, but I’m also hopeful that we’ll be able to give our athletes a chance to compete,” added Ebsen. “Safety is the first priority, and we’ll always act in the best interest of our athletes.”

Ebsen also feels flexibility will be important this year, as how things evolve with the pandemic could mean schedule changes and game cancelations. 

“Be flexible and ready to pivot because at any point things can change; don’t take any opportunities for granted,” she said. “We need to value every athletic experience we’re able to have because you never know.”

Thies thinks if everyone — student-athletes, coaches, administrators, and parents — can work as one unit, this season will be a better experience for all.

“Last year was an important reminder that high school sports mean so much to the physical, emotional, and social development of kids,” he said. “We appreciate everyone’s willingness to work together in the best interest of our kids.”

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