Fall sports proceeding, with caution

Preparations for a Big Sandy Pioneers fall sports season are geared toward maintaining as regular a program as the COVID-19 pandemic will allow, according to state and local authorities.

At press time, Big Sandy Schools Athletic Director Melanie Schwarzbach told the Mountaineer the Montana High School Association, the statewide governing body for interscholastic activities, is developing a tiered system for conducting athletic play. The five tiers are roughly akin to the three phases of re-opening outlined by Gov. Steve Bullock’s office.

“We’re going to start in Tier 1, which is we’re going to play like we normally play,” Schwarzbach said.

She said the District 9C is set to meet via online video conference in the coming week to determine details of its COVID-19 prevention measures for athletic contests and practices.

“In regards to spectators, (MHSA) basically left that up to the schools,” Schwarzbach said. “We want to plan so the 9C is consistent.”

The District 9C includes Big Sandy, Box Elder, Fort Benton, Chinook, Chester-Joplin-Inverness, North Star, Turner and Hays-Lodge Pole, spanning multiple rural North Central Montana counties. For 6-man football, Big Sandy joins Box Elder, Heart Butte, North Star, Power-Dutton-Brady, Sunburst and Valier in the Northern Division, across an even wider swath of the Treasure State.

As the author John Steinbeck famously noted, even the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The parameters around playing out the schedule are subject to change as COVID-19 case levels rise and fall in various corners of the state.

With different county public health departments responding to different situations in their jurisdictions, “there could be stricter restrictions depending on what county we are in” for road games, Schwarzbach said.

“Our county public health nurse (Angel Johnson) has been great,” she added. “She has been fabulous in working with us.”

For home contests, Schwarzbach said she anticipates Big Sandy Schools posting information weekly on their website, informing fans how they will be able to attend games in regards to mask requirements and social distancing measures.

The governor’s face covering directive will apply in counties with four or more active COVID-19 cases. For football games, this will mean players and coaches on the sidelines will be required to wear masks. Players on the field will have the option to wear them or not. Spectators will be required to maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet.

In a shift to a higher-number tier, non-conference games can be canceled and in Tiers 4 and 5, conference seasons shortened and postseason tournaments adjusted.

For volleyball season, multi-team tournaments — typically a staple for reaching the maximum number of allowed contests in the regular season — are not allowed this fall. Schwarzbach said schools are scrambling to fill dates previously planned for such tournaments by adding more head-to-head matches against a single opponent.

Pre- and post-match handshakes will be eschewed this season and team celebrations must be no-touch, lending a somewhat different look, energy and feel to volleyball matches.

Second-year Pioneer coach Brittany McKenney said it will be an adjustment, especially after a strong rebuilding year that emphasized team cohesion.

“Not being able to … high-five, and that kind of thing, will be challenging,” McKenney said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time to adjust to that. We’re going to have to be more vocal, communicating that much more, but verbally.

“But in the end, we’re all just thankful we’re going to have a season.”

That sentiment is widely shared.

“We are going to have to be flexible and patient. How everything works could change from day to day. The changes schools make may be inconvenient but necessary,” Schwarzbach said. “We want kids to have the opportunity to play but we’ve got to keep them safe.”

Fall sports practice remains scheduled to begin Friday, Aug. 14. A Cinderella run through the 9C tournament made the young and improving Pioneer netters surprise visitors to last year’s divisional tournament. The squad is set to bring that momentum into their 2020 opener on Thursday, Aug. 27, hosting the perennial powerhouse Chinook Sugarbeeters. The C-team plays at 4 p.m., followed by junior varsity and varsity matches.

The Pioneers are scheduled to begin a defense of their Northern Division football championship at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 28, hosting the Roy-Winifred Outlaws, a team they dispatched in the first round of last year’s state playoffs, en route to a 10-1 season that finished in the semifinals at eventual state champion Jordan. The junior high kicks off at 4 p.m. that day against the Outlaws.