The NHIAA on Thursday announced when fall sports teams can begin practices and games and that there will be an open tournament playoff format for cross country, field hockey, soccer and volleyball, updates that were met with praise from those within the state’s high school sports community.
All fall sports can begin practicing on Sept. 8. Bass fishing and golf can begin play Sept. 10, cross country, field hockey, soccer (including unified) and volleyball can begin games Sept. 18. Football and spirit can begin competition Friday, Sept. 25.
The NHIAA Council unanimously approved the open tournament playoff format for cross country, field hockey, soccer and volleyball. The structure of the football and golf postseasons have not yet been determined.
NHIAA Executive Director Jeff Collins said the open tournament format was approved so schools can craft regionalized regular-season schedules without worrying about the usual rule about playing a minimum number of division games to qualify for the playoffs.
When the open tournaments begin, Collins said teams will be split into division play, with the possibility of regionalized competition during the early rounds of the tournaments.
“We’re not talking ‘Hoosiers,’” Collins said, referring to the 1986 film and the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s previous format of an open boys’ basketball tournament. “It will still be divisional.”
Collins said there have been no changes to any of the fall sports’ current tournament dates.
He said he hopes the NHIAA’s decision to allow regional regular-season play and open postseason tournaments will help school districts that are deciding whether or not to offer fall sports at their high schools.
“If you take that variable out of the schedule, people are going to be more apt to say, ‘OK, I can schedule regionally with the four schools around my area and play them multiple times and still be eligible for the tournament. That may be something appealing and something my community can accept,’ and move forward from there,” Collins said.
Hanover High School boys’ soccer coach Rob Grabill is excited about the ability to play regionally in the regular season and reignite his team’s rivalry with Upper Valley neighbor Lebanon. Hanover won the Division I championship and Lebanon was the Division II runner-up last year.
“If we play a local schedule this fall, it renews one of the best possible rivalries in the state that hasn’t been active for nine years,” Grabill said. “Hanover-Lebanon is an incredibly amazing tribal warfare … The biggest problem we’ll have will be finding a place to (host) a socially distant crowd when Hanover and Lebanon play.”
Grabill said playing a regional schedule would take pressure off the school district’s transportation department and allow his team to eliminate any games that would require long travel times. If Hanover plays only nearby teams like Lebanon, Stevens of Claremont, Fall Mountain of Langdon and Keene, Grabill said there is not much travel risk and his team will still face strong competition.
“Travel is a big determinant for us,” Grabill said. “We may not get out of the Upper Valley unless for the championship itself at the end ... We could travel up and down the (Connecticut) river and be just fine.”
John Stark of Weare field hockey and baseball coach Dennis Pelletier said allowing regionalized regular-season play was the absolute best way to approach the upcoming fall season.
“We probably should someday take a look at that whole approach,” Pelletier said. “The regional thing is great. When they’re younger, kids are playing each other in these areas. In youth sports, we play Hopkinton and Kearsarge and stuff like that but in high school we don’t play them anymore. I don’t think it’s a bad idea.”
Londonderry High School Director of Athletics Howard Sobolov said nothing has been finalized yet but there is a general plan for Division I teams to play a regionalized regular-season schedule against those within the division, with the option of playing out-of-division schools as well. Some Londonderry teams’ schedules might include several home-and-home games with nearby schools like Pinkerton Academy of Derry, Windham, Salem, Alvirne of Hudson and Timberlane of Plaistow, he said.
“It creates a situation where it’s much easier to make accommodations and do the most we can to keep fans, coaches and (players) safe with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation,” Sobolov said of regional play. “It’s the right decision.”
Grabill and Pelletier were both pleased with the Sept. 18 start date for their respective teams to play games.
“It’s what I was hoping for, to be honest,” Pelletier said. “I felt that was plenty of time for the girls to get ready for the field hockey season. By that Friday, we’ll be ready to go.
“This is a huge year for our field hockey program. We had to build it pretty much from scratch. I think this year is the year we take the next step. I’m hoping we get the chance to do that.”
Pelletier and Grabill said their players are excited about the prospect of playing this fall, which Collins said is the NHIAA’s main motivation.
“The goal is to get kids out there and competing,” Collins said. “That’s the most important thing.”