Rhinelander High School track and field coach Aaron Kraemer addresses his team following practice Friday, March 13. District facilities will close Wednesday, March 18 under a mandated statewide shutdown of K-12 schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Spring sports teams will be affected by the shutdown, which will last at least until April 6. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
WIAA SUSPENDS SPRING SPORTS
The WIAA sent out the following press release Sunday in regard to the spring sports season amid the evolving COVID-19 pandemic:
Gov. Tony Evers' executive order issued Friday, March 13, 2020, closes all public and private schools, and suspends all school spring sports activities extending from Wednesday, March 13, 2020, until Monday, April 6, 2020.
The executive order is in response to the information available regarding COVID-19 and to prevent, suppress and control the disease (https://www.wiaawi.org/Health/Infectious-Disease).
The WIAA has updated its athletic participation limitations to adhere to the executive order as stated on the WIAA's Infectious Disease option on the Health webpage.
Consistent with Gov. Evers' announcement Friday, all school training, practices, scrimmages and contests are suspended. In addition, schools and coaches may not bring students together or be involved with students during this time period for any extracurricular or athletic purposes, which includes practices and other instructional/organizational purposes.
Coaches may provide individual workouts virtually, but shall not encourage or organize their team assembling to practice.
3/17/2020 7:30:00 AM Into the unknown Sports teams enter COVID-19 break not knowing when, or if, they'll meet again
The prep sports season in Wisconsin - as is the case with virtually every other sporting venture in the nation - is on hold. When things will return to normal is anyone's guess.
What we know is the prep sports calendar is off until at least the middle of April, if not longer, as concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic escalated exponentially late last week.
Late Thursday, the WIAA made the unprecedented move to scrap its boys' and girls' state basketball tournaments, bringing the winter sports season to an abrupt halt. What happens with the spring sports season remains to be seen.
The most definite signal that sports will be put on hold, at least temporarily, came later Friday afternoon when, Gov. Tony Evers directed Department of Health Services (DHS) Secretary-designee Andrea Palm to issue an agency order mandating the statewide closure of all K-12 schools until at least April 6.
Following suit, the WIAA announced Sunday evening that it is suspending the spring sports season congruent with the governor's order.
"Consistent with Gov. Evers' announcement Friday, all school training, practices, scrimmages and contests are suspended," the WIAA stated in a press release. "In addition, schools and coaches may not bring students together or be involved with students during this time period for any extracurricular or athletic purposes, which includes practices and other instructional/organizational purposes.
"Coaches may provide individual workouts virtually, but shall not encourage or organize their team assembling to practice."
The state- and WIAA-imposed mandates does not go into effect until tomorrow. Locally, Rhinelander High School activities director Brian Paulson said Saturday district facilities will remain open through the end of today for practices and open gyms.
This week was already planning to be a quiet week on the RHS campus anyway. Rhinelander was set to enter its spring break this week and would have had limited to no practice, but the mandates have now pushed the start of the spring season into early April, at best.
The lone sport to begin practice, the RHS track team, was told Friday afternoon that its season would be put on hold.
"I told the kids today, you're always thankful whenever you can meet as a team," coach Aaron Kraemer said. "The season always ends. I always tell the seniors be thankful that you have this practice because, guess what? Someday you're not going to."
Prior to Friday's announcement, Kraemer said he was anticipating having practice of some sort this week, and still planning to attend a meet that had been scheduled for Thursday at Northland Pines High School.
Initially, Rhinelander's participation in the meet was in question not due to COVID-19, but due to it coinciding with spring break. A number of coaches and athletes were scheduled to be on vacation, but with the outbreak cancelling the majority of those travel plans, Kraemer estimated Thursday he would have had a crew in excess of 40 athletes able to attend what was to have been the first meet of the season.
On Sunday, Kraemer posted on the team's Facebook page three weeks worth of workouts for his athletes to do independently.
"This will be a testing period for many people," Kraemer's post stated. "This is an opportunity for Hodag Sports to take our negative circumstance and turn it in to a powerful and purposeful response. Now is the time to make our own opportunities and continue the training that we have begun.
"Starting tomorrow, and for the next three weeks, we will have week long workouts that you can perform at home. The only extra equipment that you need is a chair. Utilize the surfaces with melting snow, or any cleared space to continue to build on the foundation you've created."
Two other RHS sports would have had the opportunity to meet this week, under WIAA guidelines, but were not going to anyway due to break. The first day of practice for softball was to have been Monday. It was also supposed to be the first day of a week of special instruction for pitchers prior to the official start of baseball practice next Monday.
RHS softball coach D.J. DeMeyer was scheduled to be on a trip this week and said the number of athletes that were scheduled to be at practice would have made it unfeasible to have an effective practice.
DeMeyer said he saw a silver lining in the delay, given that occurred before the team started practice.
"Once you start practice, you've got to build for the games - arm strength, batting, all that stuff you're building," he said. "You're trying to build them up and get them going and, if you have to take a break in the middle of that, you kind of lose a week."
For similar reasons, RHS baseball coach Joe Waksmonski was not going to take advantage of the extra week with pitchers and catchers. He said Thursday that the loss of the instruction week was to have been mitigated by the fact that most of his pitchers had been throwing independently.
"As coaches, you kind of have to go to Plan B as far as making sure everyone is getting ready and getting some sort of fundamental work in," he said. "We'll have to cross that bridge when we get there, but we do have to have something in place."
Waksmonski said one advantage Rhinelander has as it waits out the pandemic is experience. For starters, this year's seniors were freshmen in 2016 when a pertussis outbreak hit RHS in December, forcing the district and county health officials to close school - and ban organized practices and games - for a period of 17 days over the winter break.
Secondly, assuming everything returns to normal April 6, Waksmonski said the delay would not be much different than the last couple of years when spring sports teams were left in a holding pattern due to lingering snowpack.
"This is definitely a different way that we never foresaw happening," he said. "The last two years have been unfortunate, weather-wise."
That's the assumption Paulson is working under right now. Given that some area schools, such as Mosinee, have extra-curricular bans in place longer than the state-mandated April 6 date, and that the WIAA requires a minimum number of practices before teams can start competition, he said a mid-April start date is likely the best-case scenario.
"April 21 would be my ideal date to start games," he said. "If we get out before that, great a couple of extra days of practice. But, when you think about rescheduling conference, give a week buffer there after Easter because you just never know.
"I'm anticipating meetings in the next couple of working business days to see where we go from here ... I haven't even had a chance to talk to my coaches. It's been a day-by-day process."
According to WIAA regulations, teams must have played at least four regular season contests to be eligible for postseason play.
For DeMeyer, the delay pumps the breaks on what he hopes was going to be a rejuvenated season for the Hodag softball team, which is expected to see a significant increase in numbers this season.
"We've got 28 girls signed up, which is probably 12 more than what we had last year. I'm ecstatic about that," he said. "You've got to follow what the rules are and, if it's going to affect our season, it's going to affect our season. Hopefully they can postpone it a week or two until everything gets under control and we can go forward."
In the meantime, sports teams are left to wait and wonder.
"I have a really good feeling that our kids are going to handle this the right way and, regardless, they are going to get better," Kraemer said. "We're just going to roll with the punches and do the best we can."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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