Postponements bring potential disruption to football season; CIAC not concerned yet

Photo of Michael Fornabaio
20-yard line on football field

20-yard line on football field

Inti St Clair / Getty Images/Tetra images RF

For a second week in a row, East Haven and Westhill won’t be able to play their football games this weekend, so let’s watch the rescheduling ballet.

Last week’s Westhill game against Trumbull was moved to one of their original open dates — “the bye week,” in football — on Oct. 8. Westhill had no common bye weeks with this week’s opponent, Hamden. To make it work, Hamden switched two other games: Law from Nov. 5 to Nov. 12, a bye week in common, and then Sheehan from Nov. 18 to now-open Nov. 5. That allowed the Westhill game to move to Nov. 18.

Take a breath. The other half will be easier.

East Haven had its game against Lyman Hall last week moved, similarly, to Oct. 8, a bye week in many original schedules. This week, East Haven was to face Weston, and again, no common bye weeks there. But Bunnell moved its game against Weston from Nov. 12 to Oct. 8 so that Weston could meet East Haven on Nov. 12.

It’s a fancy little shuffle in a sport that plays once a week and has only a couple of open dates built into its 12-week schedule. What concerns those in charge of teams is what happens when those open dates run out and the dancers can’t change partners.

“The biggest concern we had from the start was, if you don’t add any weeks to the schedule, and you don’t have bye weeks,” SCC commissioner Al Carbone said, “where do you go?”

Not all of this fall’s postponements have been due to COVID-19 concerns, CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini said. But regardless of reason, if they keep happening into October, options for new dates become fewer.

As Week 3 of the season arrives, at least 15 football games have been postponed out of their original weeks as of Friday afternoon, and a handful of others were moved a day or two. The Collinsville Press reported Thursday that Avon, which postponed its first two games because of the coronavirus, canceled Saturday’s game against Notre Dame-Fairfield.

Several in the football community have said they’re waiting to hear a plan for what the CIAC will do if this keeps up.

Beyond the purest goal of getting teams to play their full 10-game regular seasons by Thanksgiving, a date that the CIAC at this point at least doesn’t seem interested in changing, there are playoff implications.

By rule, teams must play a minimum of eight games to qualify for the three-round tournament that begins Nov. 30 and runs through the finals on Dec. 11; boys winter sports competition begins in the week that follows.

At the start of September, a few sentences appeared in the CIAC’s guidance for the fall season.

“Schools should make every effort to reschedule postponed games before the last date to count for CIAC tournament qualification,” the guidance reads; for football, that’s Thanksgiving, with an allowance for games postponed that day to be made up that Friday or Saturday.

“Football should work with the opposing school to reschedule postponed games to the two bye weeks in the football calendar. CIAC sports committees will evaluate the percentage of games played throughout the regular season and adjust tournament qualifications if necessary.”

The football committee has been meeting regularly, Lungarini said, more often than usual, and in fact met Friday afternoon. He declined Thursday to detail what may happen if there’s a serious disruption to any football team’s season.

“We’ve certainly learned from the past,” Lungarini said.

Last year, the CIAC made plans to start an 11-on-11 football season, never got a recommendation from the state Department of Public Health to do so amid the pre-vaccination pandemic, and ultimately never sanctioned tackle football for the 2020-21 school year. Lungarini said they heard the chirps, like “flip-flopping” and “clowns.”

“We’ll be preparing what to do if necessary,” he said. “At this time, there are only a handful (of postponements).”

There were seven games postponed last week and two in Week 1; 121 games were played in the first two weeks. There are at least six games postponed or canceled this weekend, including five schools for at least a second week in a row.

“I just think it’s inevitable that it’s going to impact you, whether it’s one or two games,” Simsbury coach Dave Masters said. “I think it’s going to be hard-pressed for them to keep this schedule if it keeps going this trajectory.”

Five of those 15 postponements have either been canceled or don’t have a makeup date yet.

“Right now we’re just kind of hoping that things settle down a bit and you get games in because teams that have had to move games — and quite a few have — there’s only so many bye weeks that you can move games to,” said Rockville coach Erick Knickerbocker, whose team had to postpone its opener to Oct. 16.

“Luckily we were able to do that, but I know some schools haven’t. Right now they don’t know what they’re going to do. After missing a whole year, you hate to tell your kids, ‘Sorry, we couldn’t find a date so we’re not going to get to play this team.’ That’s a really tough pill to swallow.”

Lungarini said the CIAC is collating data from member schools’ first few weeks of competition so it doesn’t have official numbers on postponements in any sport, including why those games were moved, whether for weather, transportation issues or quarantines.

The postponement issue “comes up every meeting we have,” said Mark Berkowitz, Weston’s athletic director and co-commissioner of the SWC. “You really can’t make plans until the situations arrive because every situation is different.

“Most teams in the SWC don’t play the week before Thanksgiving, but a couple do. Football is one of the tougher ones because you only play once a week, pretty much. You’re scheduled every week except the bye weeks.”

Football uses a point system to qualify and seed playoff teams. Those points are averaged per game, but a team could lose points for a win of its own or bonus points from an opponent’s success if games are canceled outright.

And coaches and players, especially after last year’s lost season, desperately want to play.

If another team’s quarantine affects yours, “that’s got to be killer,” Coginchaug/Hale-Ray/East Hampton coach Mike Eagle said. “We haven’t even really thought about (preparing for) that. When it comes, it’s something we’ll tackle.

“I’m not going to personally say this could happen. What I’m going to say is more on us: Don’t let it happen to us. ... Control the controllables. We can control wearing the mask. We can control following all the guidelines that are set and enforced by the school. So do that, and then hopefully that ensures that we play eight games, and then who knows, maybe more.”

The Westhill/Hamden/Law/Sheehan shuffle was made easier, Carbone said, because Hamden had games against each of those teams. Get enough games in the books (and unlike last year, when there was no CIAC tournament in fall or winter sports, leagues can’t create matchups on the fly), and that will be more difficult, he said.

“That’s kind of been the message to athletic directors: hey, we may have to change Thanksgiving opponents to do this,” Carbone said. “That’s probably still in play right now. When we get past Week 5 (Oct. 8-9), it’s going to be even more difficult. We’re waiting for the CIAC, the football committee to do something.”

The CIAC has urged players to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Asymptomatic athletes who are vaccinated have less stringent quarantine rules if they’re a close contact to a known COVID-19 case, and obviously the fewer players in quarantine, the better the chance a team can play a game.

First-year Valley Regional/Old Lyme coach Hill Gbunblee said his team was missing a few starters to contact tracing last weekend.

“You either strap it up with what you have, or you postpone. Those things are out of your hands,” Gbunblee said. “All you can do is do the best you can when it comes to mitigation circumstances you have in place for your program and move forward with it.

“If you have enough to field a team, then you play ball. If you don’t, then you postpone. We live in the COVID era now, so it is what it is.”

Doug Bonjour, Sean Patrick Bowley and Jeff Jacobs contributed to this story. Postponement totals were updated online Friday evening at 6 p.m.