Brandon Lauer has never been one to look for an easy way out.
As a high school wrestler at River Hill, the 2000 graduate compiled a perfect 111-0 record in three years of varsity action. As head coach of the Hawks from 2006-15, he led the program to its first state championship in 2012 and coached seven individual state champions.
So last fall, as River Hill’s Athletics and Activities Manager, when he was tasked with taking on the responsibilities of being the lead scheduler on the Howard County Public School System return to play committee, Lauer jumped in head first with the goal of making the season “as special as possible.”
“The easy thing would have been to just match the teams up based on location, get in as many games as we could and call it a day. But I feel like we owed it to the kids to at least try and give them something more than that,” Lauer said.
The end result, following lengthy planning among the county’s athletics and activities managers since October, is a schedule unlike anything Howard County athletics have seen before.
For the abbreviated fall season — which began with tryouts on Feb. 13 and will kick off with games March 5 — there will be set play-days, divisions and modified postseason county tournaments for a handful of team sports and county champions crowned across the board.
Howard County Coordinator of Athletics John Davis said changes to the Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR) in relation to scheduling for high school sports for the remainder of the 2020-21 academic calendar made for rare opportunities in terms of creativity and flexibility.
“For the first time, we can change the schedule as we go,” Davis said. “Before, once the first play-date hit, you couldn’t move dates for anything other than rainouts or snow outs, and all opponents in the regular season had to be set ahead of time.”
The ability to “create a schedule as the season unfolds” is what spurred Lauer to develop blueprints for a culminating county tournament.
As it currently stands, these eight-team tournaments will make up the final three games on the overall 11-game schedule for boys soccer, girls soccer and volleyball. Teams will play the first eight games of the season — five against division opponents and three crossover games against the other division — and then will be seeded for the tournament based on record.
The top eight teams in the standings will play for the county title and are guaranteed three culminating games regardless of results, as losing teams will be placed in a consolation bracket. The bottom four teams in the standings will also play out the final three game of the season in a round-robin format against one another.
Field hockey is also split into two divisions, but teams will play a 10-game schedule with home and away matchups against only teams in their division. There is no postseason tournament scheduled.
Football is separated into three divisions of four teams and is scheduled to play a five-game schedule. After three games, the standings of each division will determine the match ups for the final two play dates of the season.
Cross country and golf will have a handful of head-to-head meets or matches before gathering for county championship events in April.
Cheerleading will be only participation-based with no competitions scheduled.
All junior varsity programs will be scheduled to play the same number of matches or games as their varsity counterparts.
There will be no make-ups for postponed games due to inclement weather, except for football, which has byes built into the schedule during the month of April. Those weeks could be utilized if needed to assure teams play five games.
Any scheduling adjustments that are needed because of potential team shutdowns due to coronavirus outbreaks will be handled on a case-by-case basis, Davis said.
Davis also acknowledged that while games are an exciting and important component to the upcoming season, they are only a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to getting back on the fields and courts after nearly a year away from action. While he believes the games will be competitive, he also views this season as a “warm up” for a likely more normal 2021-22 athletic season.
“Success in my mind right now is just getting those kids back out, moving around and just having fun again. From a mental aspect, after being cooped up for so long, that’s what they need more than anything,” Davis said.
Here’s how each sport is handling the abbreviated season:
Boys/girls soccer and volleyball
After opening night on March 5, all subsequent boys and girls soccer games will be played on Tuesdays and Thursdays. After opening night on March 5, all remaining volleyball games will be played on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Junior varsity games will start at 5 p.m. and varsity at 6:30 p.m. for all three sports.
The two divisions were created by “utilizing what the MPSSAA already has in place in regards to the regions and how they are built, looking at classifications first and geographical region second,” Lauer said.
Division A: Atholton, Hammond, Long Reach, Reservoir, River Hill, Wilde Lake
The first five games of the season will be matchups against each of the opponents within a team’s division, and the next three will be crossover contests based on the standings to that point. For example, the top team in Division A will play the second-, fourth- and sixth-best teams in Division B, while the second-best team in Division A will play the first-, third- and fifth-best team in Division B. The odd-numbered teams in the division standings will play the even-numbered teams in the other division, and vice versa.
After the eighth game, currently scheduled for March 30, the county teams will then be seeded 1-12 based on record. The top eight teams will be put in a bracket for a tournament to determine the county champion, while the bottom four will placed into a three-game round-robin format to finish out the season.
The quarterfinal round of the tournament will be April 6, the semifinals April 8, and then the championship round April 15. Regardless of outcome, all teams will complete a full 11 games by playing through a consolation bracket.
The winner of the tournament will be crowned as county champion.
The first game date of the season for football will be used for scrimmages, with those matchups being held on March 4. Then, over the following six weeks, every team will play five games and have one bye week. The majority of games will be scheduled for Friday nights (the week of April 2 games will be played on Thursday), with JV kicking off at 4:30 p.m. and varsity at 7.
The county teams will be split into three four-team divisions that were created “based on the three HCPSS area formations,” Lauer said.
Division A: Atholton, Hammond, River Hill, Wilde Lake
Division B: Glenelg, Long Reach, Howard, Reservoir
Each school will play the other teams in its division the first three games. The standings will then determine the opponents for each team’s final two games, as each team will play the corresponding teams in the other two division standings. For example, the top team in Division A will play each of the top teams in divisions B and C, while the second-best team in Division A will play each of the second-best teams in B and C.
When Division A and B play one another on April 1, the four teams in Division C will have a bye week. The following Friday, when Division A and Division C face off, the teams in Division B will have a bye. Lastly, Division A will have a bye to close the season when B and C teams square off.
The team with the best record at the end of the season will be crowned county champion. In the case of a tie, there could be mulitple county champions.
Starting March 8, all field hockey games will be played on Mondays and Wednesdays with a start time of 5 p.m. for JV and 6:30 for varsity. Each team will play 10 games.
With six programs not fielding JV programs, the divisions were created to put the teams together that have both JV and varsity for scheduling purposes.
Division A (with JV): Glenelg, Howard, Marriotts Ridge, Mt. Hebron, Reservoir, River Hill
Division B: Atholton, Centennial, Hammond, Long Reach, Oakland Mills, Wilde Lake
Teams in each division will play one another twice — once at home and once away.
For the purposes of crowning a county champion, only teams in Division A are eligible, and it will be determined by the team with the best record at the end of the season. There will be no tournament.
The season will kick off March 13 with a pair of six-team races for both JV and varsity — one at Reservoir and another at Atholton. There will be two other six-team races during the month of March, with varsity running on Thursdays (March 18 and 25) and JV on Saturdays (March 20 and 27).
The teams will have a culminating county championship race on April 10 at Centennial. The top 20 boys and girls from each school will be eligible to compete at that final meet.
A schedule has not been finalized, but the plan is for matches to start in late March and a county championship tournament to be held in April. Dates and times are still to be determined.