MANSFIELD — The COVID-19 pandemic that turned life upside-down for the past 14 months is still simmering, but there may be light at the end of the tunnel.
As vaccination efforts continue to ramp up, athletic directors across north central Ohio have for the first time allowed themselves to consider what a return to normalcy might look like.
Officials are taking stock in what worked during the health crisis and are considering ideas that will serve them in navigating a post-pandemic high school sports landscape.
“We learned a lot from this but I would never want to go through it again,” said Madison athletic director Doug Rickert, echoing the thoughts of every high school athletic administrator in the region. “It’s been very trying, and not just for the athletic department at Madison. It’s been tough for all the athletic directors.”
For Lucas AD Taylor Iceman, the fall sports season was especially challenging. Lucas competes as an independent in football and when the Ohio High School Athletic Association announced in early August of last year that the football season would be pared to six games, the Cubs were left scrambling.
Most schools opted to keep their conference schedules intact, meaning Lucas was on the outside looking in until Iceman and the athletic directors in the Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference reached an agreement. Lucas would compete as a de facto member of the MOAC and played all of its regular season games on the road.
“It’s always unique with us and football anyway,” Iceman said. “When we found out we basically didn’t have a schedule just a few weeks before the season was supposed to start, we had to get creative.The MOAC schools were extremely gracious. They took us in.
“We were in a spot. The MOAC schools didn’t owe Lucas anything and they were willing to work with us. We were proactive and communicated and made the best of it and it went fairly smoothly.”
The willingness of athletic directors to collaborate during the unprecedented crisis is something all parties hope survives.
“The communication with the other ADs is what I’ll take away from it,” Rickert said. “We had to work together a lot on this. We’d ask each other questions and bounce ideas off each other.
“We’d be on the phone at 9 or 10 o’clock every night working on what we can do to make it better. It didn’t stop at 3 o’clock.”
The Madison girls soccer team won the Division II state championship last fall and managed to avoid COVID-19 quarantine during the entire run.
“At Madison we were a lot more strict than other schools but our girls soccer team won a state championship and never was quarantined the whole season,” Rickert said. “We’d like to think we had something to do with that.
“There’s no playbook for a pandemic. There were COVID protocols. There were different ticketing policies. One school would do it one way and another school would do it a different way. Some parents went to places and couldn’t watch their kids play. And all that falls back on the athletic directors whether it’s our fault or not.”
For athletic administrators, more headaches awaited during the recently completed winter season as virus cases surged. Seasons were a series of fits and starts and the OHSAA implemented even stricter guidelines for the number of fans permitted at indoor venues.
Only one spectator per state qualifier was permitted inside Canton’s C.T. Branin Natatorium for the swimming portion of the state swimming and diving championships.
“What has been difficult during this whole ordeal is spectator attendance and ticket demand,” Clear Fork athletic director Jeff Gottfried said. “Never in the past, until you get to the regional finals, have you had to put a priority system in place to determine who got to come watch a game.
"It’s unfortunate for these kids that grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles weren’t allowed to come to the games. It’s hard to tell grandma and grandpa, ‘You can’t watch your grandson or granddaughter play.’ ”
The pandemic forced schools to streamline the ticketing process. Most schools adopted some form of paperless ticketing procedure that relied on smartphone technology.
“It is something that’s been talked about for a while and I think some bigger schools had already starting doing it,” Iceman said. “As an athletic director it was nice because it kind of forced our hand.
"From an ADs standpoint, it’s nice not to have to stick around and count money. That’s something I think you’ll see in the future.”
Perhaps the greatest lesson learned during the pandemic, Ashland AD Jason Goings said, was how resilient athletes and their coaches are.
“What the kids have been able to do as far as adapting and being flexible and being coachable outside of their sports was remarkable,” Goings said. “And I can’t praise my coaches enough. They are all coaches of the year this year.
"What we’ve been through and to only have minimal interruptions is amazing. We’re talking 22 sports and all the teams within each sport. We did great. It’s a credit to the coaches following protocols and checking symptoms and making sure sanitation procedures were in place and being followed.”
All athletic officials are looking forward to a time when social distancing is a distant memory.
“It’s something we’ll never forget,” Iceman said, “and something we hope we never have to deal with again.”