Carroll County’s Board of Education members agreed at their meeting two weeks ago to “throw all of our weight” behind trying to encourage the state to approve an earlier timeline for the start of high school sports, and the Maryland State Board of Education on Monday approved doing just that.
The state’s decision to allow practice to begin Dec. 7, nearly two months earlier than the previously agreed-upon Feb. 1 start date, delighted those within Carroll who have been adamant about getting high school athletics back on the county’s calendar as soon as possible.
“I’m so excited. I want our kids back,” Marsha Herbert, county school board vice president, said Monday. “They need athletics so bad. So I know I’m very excited about that. ... I will be so glad that we can get moving on Dec. 7. That makes me happy, it really does.”
Winter sports practices can begin that day, and the first play date would be Jan. 4. A fall sports schedule can start Feb. 13, with games beginning March 5. Spring sports would start April 17, with a first play date set for May 7.
The earlier start date allows for more weeks of competition, and helps to remove overlap of the winter, fall, and spring seasons.
“This is what we in Carroll County, we had advocated for this,” Michael Duffy, Carroll County’s supervisor of athletics, said. “We are pleased that the state board of education took this action. Now, we’re going to go back to work. We’re going to work with both the Carroll County Board of Education [and] the Carroll County Health Department to put together a program that benefits our students the best way that we can within this new timeline.”
Times first-team all-county wrestler Grant Warner, a senior at Manchester Valley and a 4A-3A state finalist in 2020, said he was relieved to hear of Monday’s news.
“Talking to some of the guys on the team, we’re all really excited to get back out on the mat as soon as possible,” Warner said. “Starting earlier than later, it’s pretty exciting. Even those extra couple of weeks, we’re all pretty optimistic that we’re going to put together as close to a real season as we can.”
Ally Mathias, a sophomore at Francis Scott Key who earned first-team all-county girls basketball honors last season, said she hasn’t been able to get on the court as much as she would like during the pandemic.
“It’s very relieving, because ... it’s been a struggle for everyone,” Mathias said. “The fact that we have something to look forward to, and set dates, is really exciting.”
Fellow wrestler Michael Pizzuto, a sophomore at South Carroll High School, won a Class 2A-1A state championship last winter and put together a 50-0 season. Other than some practices and a few club tournaments, Pizzuto, the reigning Times Wrestler of the Year, said he hasn’t been on a mat in full wrestling mode since March. He wasn’t too optimistic over the last few months while the board of education tried to come up with a sensible plan to bring sports back.
But when Pizzuto saw an email Monday from an assistant coach relaying the news, he said he was eager to get started.
Carroll’s school board had already voted not to begin sports on Oct. 7, an option given in late September by State Superintendent Karen Salmon, insistent that hybrid learning begin before sports. The board wanted time to receive feedback from the public on whether to allow practice to commence in November for an abbreviated fall season or to follow the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association’s plan to start Feb. 1 — with the hope that the modified proposal of a Dec. 7 start date would eventually be approved.
The MPSSAA’s initial plan, approved in early August, called for winter sports to run from Feb. 1 through March 27, fall sports from March 15 through May 8, and for spring sports to wrap up the year from April 26 through June 19. The county’s school board members learned from Duffy, during that Oct. 7 meeting, about the proposed adjusted timeline that had the backing of officials from several local school systems.
Board member Ken Kiler made a motion late in that meeting for Carroll County Public Schools to adhere to the MPSSAA’s plan. He did not get a second, however, and the motion was not voted upon. The board later received more than 500 responses about which plan to accept, according to information from its Oct. 14 agenda, and about 58% favored the MPSSAA’s plan.
Carroll County Public Schools began its hybrid learning plan for middle schools and elementary schools on Oct. 19, with students given the option of returning to in-person learning two days per week and learning virtually on the other three days. High schools are slated to begin under the hybrid model on Nov. 12.
Ed Singer, the county’s top health officer, was vocal in his disapproval of starting sports and hybrid learning at the same time. He said during the Oct. 7 meeting, “I’d do anything I can to support that second option,” referring to the Dec. 7 start date plan. Singer later wrote a letter for the school board in support of the MPSSAA’s modified sports timeline.
Now, that Dec. 7 timeline is a go.
Duffy said Carroll’s athletic directors have been creating modified sports schedules that should be completed and publicized soon. High school athletes have been participating in different forms of practices (non-sports specific and conditioning) for the last several weeks, and Duffy said there will continue to be collaboration between his staff and county health officials to ensure the proper guidelines are being followed.
Spectator capacity will also be discussed, Duffy said.
“As with all of our decisions, safety is our No. 1 priority,” he said. “And when we tackle this next step, we’re needing to make sure that safety is our focus and providing the best program we can for our kids.”
No Maryland public high school interscholastic competitions have taken place since March 7.
At a news conference last month, Salmon and Gov. Larry Hogan said high school sports could begin practices Oct. 7 and competitions Oct. 27. But most of the state’s school districts didn’t choose to resume play in October with the exception of Maryland’s most western counties — Allegany, Garrett, and Washington — which will begin interscholastic competitions Tuesday.
Carroll’s high school athletes will still have to wait a few months for games, but not nearly as long as originally expected.
“Patience has been a virtue through COVID,” Herbert said. “We just had some terrible highs and lows, but this is a high point. I’m really happy about that.”