Croatan head coach Andrew Gurley, right, and assistant coach Charles Colborn, left, conduct practice with masks as players socially distance. In phase two, football teams will be able to share a ball in player pods. (J.J. Smith photo)

MOREHEAD CITY — It’s difficult to play fall sports without footballs, soccer balls, volleyballs or tennis balls.

However, that has been mostly the case this summer with N.C. High School Athletic Association supplying strict coronavirus guidelines for member schools.

The NCHSAA announced this week that Monday will begin phase two of the reopening sports plan, which includes the limited sharing of balls within player pods.

“It’s not much of a change, but they can at least play catch now,” East Carteret Athletic Director Daniel Griffee said. “It’s more than just running. But there is still no contact.”

The association has been in phase one, which started when workouts resumed on June 15.

In phase two, coaches will continue to enforce strict no-contact summer workout guidelines. Protocols include temperature checks, social distancing, working out in the same groups and no sharing of water bottles or equipment.

Weight rooms will remain closed, and no contact is allowed between players.

The guidelines also continue to prohibit more than 25 people, including players, athletes and athletic trainers, to be together outside at one time and only 10 people at a time for inside sports. Training can last no more than 90 minutes per group.

Football players can use tackling dummies, donuts and sleds. Those must be cleaned before use by another player pod.

“We’re all excited for Monday,” said Croatan coach Dave Boal who doubles as an assistant football coach. “It’s a psychological lift. The kids have enjoyed being out there. It’s something normal, but it can get mundane just doing conditioning. When I told the coaches, they thought it was awesome.”

West Carteret athletic director Michael Turner also serves as the school’s volleyball coach. Volleyball teams were allowed inside during phase one, but without the ability to use a ball, most stayed outside to do conditioning drills.

“It didn’t make sense (to go inside) just for that,” Turner said. “This allows us to get inside. You just have to be very cognizant of sanitation. Every ball has to come out of the rotation as soon as it’s played and be sanitized.”

Turner reported the cost of sanitizing is high, and the ability to find the products is difficult.

“We have to step up our sanitation game now,” he said.

The other phase two change allows student-athletes into a training room. A licensed athletic trainer must be present and appropriate disinfecting must occur afterwards. Athletes were previously not allowed in training rooms unless it was an emergency.

“It’s not much change,” Boal said. “It’s just a little different, but I think it helps us see a glimmer. You can only do so much with just conditioning. The coaches are pretty encouraged.”

Two weeks ago, the NCHSAA released an official start date of Sept. 1 for fall sports – the original start date is historically Aug. 1.

This move by the NCHSAA represents the latest in a mix of positive and negative news in the last few weeks.

Nearby Duplin and Jones counties each this past week suspended summer workouts due to the pandemic. Duplin has 1,900 coronavirus cases while Jones has 55. Carteret County has 300 cases.

“I think everybody is trying to do what is best for their LEA (Local Education Agency) and community, and (Duplin has) been hit hard by it,” Turner said. “We’ve been lucky down here. It’s been so far, so good. If the data changes and we’re creating danger for the kids or the community, I have no doubt we will shut down. That just hasn’t happened.”

Craven County also this week announced it would go strictly to remote learning for the first nine weeks of the school year. Carteret County has approved a mix of onsite and remote learning for reopening its schools.

“I don’t know what that means for sports,” Griffee said. “If they don’t allow them in school, why would they allow them to go play in a gym or on a field.”

Earlier in the week, the Virginia High School Sports League delayed sports until Dec. 4 with fall, winter and spring seasons taking place over the final six months of the school year.

“That makes all the sense in the world,” Boal said. “If we do that, that would be fine with us. It’s a plan.”

On the other side of the ledger, last week, the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association announced it would play fall sports, including football, on a delayed scheduled this fall. The private school organization will begin Aug. 10 for cross country, girls golf, tennis, soccer and volleyball, and Sept. 4 for football.

“It’s more manageable at the private level because you’re talking about much smaller student populations,” Turner said. “Money plays a role, like colleges, but they are putting the safety of the kids first and foremost.”

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