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High school sports return to Maryland this weekend. Here’s what you need to know for the fall 2021 season.

For the second time in six months, schools throughout the Baltimore region are gearing up for a fall sports season — and this one should be significantly more normal than the last.

After the fall 2020 season was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, several counties in Central Maryland competed in shortened seasons in March and April, and some opted not to play. Now, full schedules and state playoffs are back for the first time in two years, but the elephant in the room is once again COVID.

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With the fall public school sports season set to begin Friday, here’s what to know:

How will COVID-19 affect the season?

This is the million-dollar question.

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Many hoped that by now COVID-19 would be under control enough for everything to be fully back to normal, but that’s not the case, particularly with the spread of the contagious delta variant.

It is still a possibility that athletes could contract COVID-19 and outbreaks could cause a team to shut down, just as it was in the spring. Maryland’s positivity and case rates are similar to what they were in March during the shortened 2020-21 fall season. The main difference is that now some athletes are vaccinated, and all are eligible.

There are no vaccine mandates in place for coaches and athletes this fall, though Baltimore City Public Schools announced this week they would be required for all athletes for winter and spring sports.

Baltimore City Public Schools announced this week that COVID vaccines would be required for all athletes for winter and spring sports — but no such mandate is in place for the fall. The move isn’t unprecedented, as Fairfax and Loudon counties in Virginia recently made similar decisions. But no other central Maryland jurisdiction has yet followed suit.

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When it comes to face masks, that decision is up to each jurisdiction. In most of the area’s counties, athletes will not be required to wear masks while actively competing, but for volleyball — the lone indoor sport during the fall season — spectators will be required to mask, regardless of vaccination status. And some teams will still have COVID protocols in place for games and practice, such as social distancing when possible and limiting time spent indoors and in locker rooms.

There are no overarching guidelines to determine when and if a team would need to stop playing if multiple athletes test positive for COVID. If there are positive cases, school officials and the health department for the jurisdiction they’re in would make the call.

Arundel volleyball coach Ashley Yuscavage cheering on her team during a match against Broadneck on April 13.
Arundel volleyball coach Ashley Yuscavage cheering on her team during a match against Broadneck on April 13. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

How will COVID-19 impact the quality of play?

Cross country will be an interesting sport to watch this fall, as the returning harriers are running in their second distance season in the last six months. Normally, indoor and outdoor track seasons — during which many harriers run mid-distance events that are shorter than the 5K — sandwich cross country seasons. But this year, only one shortened track season separated the two cross country campaigns.

Football was the sport most impacted by COVID-19 this past spring. With several dozen players on each roster and social distancing impossible, COVID-19 cancellations were common, causing an already shortened schedule to be even more condensed. Coaches, players and school officials are hoping that will be less of a problem this season.

Milford Mill football coach Reggie White gives a speech to his team during the first day of football practice on Aug. 11.
Milford Mill football coach Reggie White gives a speech to his team during the first day of football practice on Aug. 11. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Which public school teams return as defending champions from 2019?

Of all the things missing from the shortened 2020 season, the return of state playoffs is the most welcome.

Every two years, classification changes cause a shakeup in power dynamics. Several Maryland schools are in new classifications this year, the most notable being Howard High, which dropped from Class 4A to 3A.

In total, here are the 14 Baltimore-area teams hoping to defend their crowns from 2019:

Boys soccer: Wilde Lake and Century.

Boys cross country: Severna Park and River Hill.

Girls cross country: Howard and Liberty.

Field hockey: Severna Park, Westminster, Marriotts Ridge and Liberty.

Girls soccer: Perry Hall and Patterson Mill.

Volleyball: Arundel and Century.

Catch up before the season

The Baltimore Sun has compiled previews for all of the fall sports seasons. Catch up with them here:

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