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By Zach Cavanagh
The “scoreboard” watching is over in Orange County, as sports teams and organizations across the area got the number they needed on Tuesday, Feb. 23.
Outdoor sports are back on in Orange County, as the county’s new case rate per 100,000 people dropped below 14 to 11.9 in the state’s weekly coronavirus tier update. New state guidelines dropped on Friday, Feb. 19 set the 14 per 100,000 benchmark to return to play.
Despite staying in the highest risk purple “widespread” tier, Orange County’s coronavirus metrics continued to improve overall with the testing positivity dropping to 5.4% from 7.8% and the health equity positivity rate dropping to 7.0% from 10.7%. Both of those numbers are down to red “substantial” levels.
Pending county and school district approvals, high school football and water polo teams can finally begin their twice-delayed seasons as early as Feb. 26, and the outdoor spring sports of soccer, lacrosse, baseball, softball and cheerleading can all go off as scheduled next month.
Friday’s new sports guidelines did not completely wipe out the previous guidelines that slotted each sport in one of the state’s four color-coded coronavirus monitoring tiers based on level of risk as determined by indoor or outdoor and amount of contact. The sports are still assigned to tiers, but with the case rate threshold now in place, the tiers only affect indoor sports, which remain in the orange “moderate” and yellow “minimal” tiers.
The guidelines apply across the board to youth and adult sports, either organized or recreational.
Of the CIF-SS’ high school fall or “Season 1” sports, cross country was the first and only sport allowed to compete in the purple tier and has been since Jan. 25, when the regional stay-at-home orders were lifted across the state. Girls tennis was the first spring or “Season 2” sport to open action on Monday, Feb. 22, and can now play doubles matches under the new guidelines.
However, the spotlight now shines back to high school’s big-ticket sport: football.
“We’re fired up,” San Juan Hills football coach and athletic director Rob Frith said. “We’ve spend a lot of time preparing. It’s go time. We get to do what we’ve been training to do for over a year.”
Football has two special stipulations for its return. First, like water polo and rugby, the state’s new guidelines require weekly COVID-19 tests for all football coaches and players with results provided within 24 hours of competition. The state said it will cover the cost of the testing, making it free for the schools and teams. The state and CIF-SS did not lay out any protocols for positive tests, game cancelations or anything like that, with CIF-SS saying it would be a decision for districts and individual schools.
“If we have to do it, then we’ve just got to get it done,” Frith said. “We’re just going to have to be organized and proactive.”
The testing requirement could go away if the new case rate per 100,000 goes below 7.
Second, CIF-SS rules require 14 days of full practice before football games can be played and 10 days before a scrimmage against another team can be held. So, whereas water polo can start immediately on Friday if the proper approvals come through, there will still be two weeks of headway before football can officially start. With CIF-SS’ official end date for football season on April 17, every day counts in terms of the length of the season.
“There’s absolutely no way to plan for this,” JSerra football coach Pat Harlow said. “A month ago, I would’ve said we’re not playing. But now for the chance to play a limited schedule, it’s great for these kids and especially these seniors.”
San Juan Hills will open its season on March 19 at home against El Toro then play at Capistrano Valley before opening a three-game South Coast League schedule against San Clemente, at Mission Viejo and at home against Tesoro.
JSerra will open its Trinity League season on March 19 against Mater Dei. St. Margaret’s, Capistrano Valley Christian and Fairmont San Juan Capistrano will organize their shortened seasons in the coming days.
For the rest of the outdoor high school sports, the start dates will trickle out over the next month.
Water polo can begin on Friday, Feb. 26, soccer on Saturday, Feb. 27, boys tennis on Monday, March 1, lacrosse on March 12, swimming on March 13, baseball and softball on March 19, and golf and boys track and field on March 20.
The indoor sports – volleyball, basketball and wrestling – did not receive any updates and remain in their holding patterns.
Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a multiple California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.