Jeff Jacobs: A CIAC football scheduling nightmare is getting closer to reality

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The angst is going to continue through the autumn because, well, you know, COVID-19 delta variant.

High school football teams in Connecticut could end up playing eight or nine games of a 10-game schedule. Let’s hope it isn’t fewer. Playoff positions could be gained or lost if postponements become cancellations.

This no longer is a hypothetical, nor is it a columnist’s hyperbole.

The tipping point slowly, methodically is becoming a reality.

After the on-again, off-again nature of last year’s decision process ultimately left high school football canceled and emotions tattered, the CIAC is doing everything it can in 2021 to get games played and keep passions cool.

Three games were postponed in Week 1 because of issues related to COVID. One was played after three days.

Depending on where you live in Connecticut, you may have missed it entirely.

Ten of approximately 65 scheduled games were postponed in Week 2 because of issues related to COVID. Three were played within three days.

Although chances are good you heard about some postponements, we live in little regional pods in this state and chances are better you didn’t realize the postponements had reached double digits.

Through Thursday evening, five more games had been postponed in Week 3. Weston at East Haven, Cromwell-Portland at North Branford, Hamden at Westhill, Brien McMahon at Capital Prep and Avon at Notre Dame-Fairfield.

Week after week, the numbers are adding up. Avon hasn’t played a game yet. Others are missing games in Week 2 and 3.

The CIAC — or the state DPH for that matter — makes no formal announcements on COVID postponements. Changes to the team’s schedules are made on the CIAC website and the original schedule disappears. Our Mike Fornabaio, Doug Bonjour and Sean Patrick Bowley went back and compared the revamped schedules with the originals listed in the GameTimeCT previews. A little like piecing together a puzzle.

And what will the puzzle look like when it’s finished?

That is an excellent question. One a growing number of football folks would like answered.

CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini said the state’s governing sports body is not going to give any details yet.

“Looking at a playoff picture and what’s going to happen in the first weeks of December,” he said, “I don’t think in mid-September that it’s critical we announce how things, if necessary, will change.”

More than other years, the CIAC football committee is meeting throughout this season. It was scheduled to meet again Friday and could continue weekly or bi-weekly. Lungarini said an important factor is the committee includes principals, coaches and athletic directors. Stakeholders are part of the process.

“We certainly learned from the past that we often get criticized with everything from flip-flopping to being referred to as clowns,” Lungarini said, “We are going to have these conversations and we are prepared. When appropriate and necessary to make those changes, we will do so.

“With only a handful of games at TBA we don’t think we are at that threshold yet.”

We are getting there.

Lungarini made an entirely valid point, arguably the most vital one: We just don’t know from week to week how much effect COVID will have on the schedule.

One concern is if the committee makes a late call on the playoff format, whatever it is, without previously explaining the framework of possibilities it leaves itself open to calls of stupidity or, worse, favoritism.

“The second-guessing doesn’t bother me,” Lungarini said, “because we’re confident in every decision we’ve made since the outset of the pandemic.”

Most teams have either Oct. 8 or Oct. 15, weeks 5 and 6 of the 12-week season, as a bye week. This is where several early postponed games will be rescheduled, although in some cases it will take a lot juggling. Four games still have no makeup dates. Rescheduling non-conference games could be difficult.

Depending on when teams play Thanksgiving week, there usually is another open date in November. Yet that can be a tight squeeze and if a team makes the playoffs, it will have a slew of games in short order.

And if it gets late and no bye weeks exist for a makeup? Good luck.

One thing that evidently isn’t going to happen is extending the regular season.

“We haven’t had any conversations of moving (the playoffs) back,” Lungarini said. “Our football championship is the latest in New England .. already crosses over with basketball season, winter sports. I think that would be an extreme necessity to do something like that.”

There will be no forfeits because of COVID-related postponements. It always will go as a no-contest. Right now a team must play eight games to make the playoffs and Lungarini said that number has not been adjusted to this point.

“The minimum number of games is an element that is a topic of conversation,” Lungarini said. “As we get deeper in the season, you get a clearer picture of decisions that you have to make and a clearer picture of timeframe to release information.”

Fully vaccinated athletes do not have to quarantine or get tested after exposure if they remain asymptomatic. Unvaccinated students who have close contact, even if asymptomatic, must quarantine for at least 10 days, with a negative test on Day 8 or later — or 14 days without a test. Same for vaccinated students with symptoms.

Think about this. Team A has a painfully low number of vaccinated players. Somebody gets COVID or has been exposed to it. It forces Team B who it played the previous week to postpone two games. Team B, especially if it is in Class S or M with fewer players, might lose both vaccinated with symptoms and unvaccinated players. Team B misses the playoffs because of it.

Team B, its coach, its parents, its fans, are going to be irate.

Yes, the point system is determined by points per game, but the system doesn’t take into account the opponent of postponed games. The lost game or two might have been victories over strong teams with a bunch of bonus points. Or missing two games that would have been losses can get a COVID team into the playoffs.

“Every coach, every player, every AD wants to play games,” Lungarini said. “I don’t believe there is anyone out there who is using a COVID excuse to not play a game to gain a competitive advantage.”

That may well be entirely true, but sometimes it just works out that way.

Lungarini has led the charge for athletes to get vaccinated and continued calling for vaccinations Thursday. Bravo!

The CIAC does not have specific numbers on how many players were ruled out because they weren’t vaccinated. Lungarini said only 15 or 20 schools have reported the percentage of players that have been vaccinated.

“We do know there are very few scenarios where there are positive COVID tests on the team,” Lungarini said. “It’s mostly close contacts. Not having enough kids to play because of close contacts represents that the majority of that team is not vaccinated. I do feel confident saying because of the low percentage of students vaccinated, that is a significant reason why a number of games haven’t been played. If more kids were vaccinated, it’s likely that some of these games may have been able to be played.”

The previous paragraph is infuriating. You hate to see the non-vaccinated — the selfish — rewarded in any way.

“We’re going to get through a full season,” Lungarini said. “We’re going to give kids as many opportunities as we can to play. For your readers, I think it’s important to understand this is education-based athletics.

“Our focus needs to be getting our kids safely on the field of play, keeping our kids healthy in class and involved. Your focus can’t be where you are in the CIAC playoff picture. That right now is irrelevant. Heading into Week 3, if you’re worried about where you’ll be in Week 13, you’re just not being realistic about what’s important and the needs of the kids at this time.”

The angst continues.; @jeffjacobs123