Football cancellations on the rise as high school sports continue to navigate COVID-19 – cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio — As Ohio’s coronavirus case count continues to climb entering the fall, cancellations continue to be a reality for high school sports.
Through five weeks of the football season, the number of canceled games this year has already exceeded last year’s total.
Based on confirmed cancellations on the statewide score-tracking website JoeEitel.com, at least 191 Ohio football games have been canceled in the first five weeks. Not all cancellations are confirmed to be related to COVID-19 or for health reasons, but by comparison in 2019 — before the pandemic — the state had only eight canceled games by the midway point of the regular season.
Last year, Ohio had 58 games canceled through the first five weeks and 188 games total through a 13-week season and playoffs.
“There’s more games getting canceled than I thought there would be,” said Bedford coach Charles Saulter, whose team had a game canceled last week, “but the majority of games are being played throughout the state. As we get closer to the winter months, I’m not sure. It’s a day-by-day operation.”
A year ago, the OHSAA voided all football contracts for the originally scheduled 10-game regular season to play six weeks before the playoffs. It also allowed for additional regular season games after elimination from the playoffs so they could complete a full schedule.
Some schools delayed the starts to their seasons and others opted out of fall athletics, leading to fewer games being scheduled last year.
The trend still points to some uncertainty, which the OHSAA already addressed in August by altering its criteria for playoff qualification and reducing the minimum number of required games from eight to five.
The move could ultimately benefit a school such as Villa Angela-St. Joseph, which is coming off back-to-back cancellations without finding a replacement opponent. Coach Jeff Rotsky estimated he reached out to about 40 coaches and schools about potentially playing the last two weeks.
“It stunk,” said Rotsky, whose Vikings are slated to play Friday at Walsh Jesuit. “Our kids have been getting so excited and fired up. For it to be shelved for two weeks, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
That uncertainty led Saulter to routinely check each week what schools are seeking new opponents, just in case his team’s originally scheduled game falls through. Many coaches are keeping an eye on social media or using group text messages for scheduling purposes.
Saulter said he learned Thursday morning last week that Shaker Heights might not be able to play the following night at Bedford for their Lake Erie League game. Once Shaker coach Alex Nicholson confirmed that later in the day, Saulter immediately called Padua coach Michael Polevacik. Like Bedford, Padua had its game canceled vs. Ellet. Saulter and Polevacik have a rapport from playing last year and again this summer for a scrimmage.
Philosophies have differed on finding replacement games within just a day or two. For example, defending Division V state champion Kirtland opted against finding a new Week 3 opponent after its trip to Pittsburgh against Westinghouse Prep was scrapped a day ahead of time.
Teams expressed interest in playing, but Kirtland coach Tiger LaVerde gathered his players for a softball game and a change of pace that week. Bedford and Padua had an advantage in scheduling on short notice.
“I think it helps that we scrimmaged them,” Saulter said. “We played them in a game last season. When you put that together, they knew about us and we knew about them.”
Kirtland took a unique approach last year, when schools navigated the pandemic with masks, social distancing and virtual learning. Following the Hornets’ 38-0 state championship win vs. Ironton, LaVerde credited his district for allowing football and girls soccer players to remain in a virtual learning state throughout the fall.
Readopting that strategy has not been broached by the district this fall, Kirtland athletic director Matt Paul said Tuesday. Paul, who also serves as Kirtland’s assistant principal said it’s “business as usual. We’re just going to stay safe and wear masks inside.”
So far this fall, the Week 3 football cancellation and a few rescheduled games for volleyball have been Kirtland’s biggest scheduling hurdles.
Paul agreed with LaVerde’s assertion last fall that Kirtland’s measures helped keep its sports seasons going.
“It definitely couldn’t have hurt us because of less contact,” Paul said.
Of the 191 games canceled this year in Ohio, only 16 came in Week 1. Most schools had yet to begin their fall semesters, and the OHSAA kicked off its football season a week earlier than normal to compensate for an added week of the playoffs.
The number of cancellations this year increased in each of the first four weeks with a high of 57 for the weekend of Sept. 10 and 11. Last week, cancellations decreased to 35 games.
“I think the playoffs is where it’s going to be tricky,” Saulter said. “You cancel that game, and that’s it.”
Twenty-seven playoff games last year were canceled, resulting in teams advancing via forfeit.
Contact sports reporter Matt Goul on Twitter (@mgoul) or email (mgoul@cleveland.com).
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