(Editor's note: For updated MHSA winter sport requirements/considerations, please click here.)
HELENA -- As fall sports continue to wind down and the Montana High School Association nears the end of one athletic season, the page is now set to turn to winter sports. The MHSA announced in October there would be a delay between the fall sports season and the competition going into winter — practices won’t start until Monday, Dec. 7 for the winter sports of basketball, wrestling and swimming, and competition actually won’t begin until after the new year.
The MHSA executive board held a meeting Wednesday, Nov. 4, deciding on some of the different regulations, guidelines and formats for its upcoming winter athletic season.
“For regular-season winter sports, it will be up to the local county health departments in regard to spectators,” said MHSA executive director Mark Beckman.
Montana’s spectator policy will remain the same during the regular season, left in the hands of local health departments. But the MHSA executive board did make a slight adjustment on winter competition, moving the start date for games up a couple days to Saturday, Jan. 2.
“It gives them another opportunity to have a contest, because we know they’re going to be practicing, even over the (Christmas) break," said Beckman. "They (originally could start competition) that Monday, Jan. 4, which a lot of schools may throw games on there, or would have. But going to Jan. 2, we think that’s feasible in having the weekend day for that, it would be great. We know, also, that the schedule as it is, we’re going to keep everything, the postseason and everything in basketball, and we’ve adjusted it for swimming and wrestling, so by doing this and allowing those contests, it gives them more opportunities to get those games in.”
Basketball season will closely resemble the fall’s volleyball regulations — there will be no multi-team events and teams are allowed to create an 18-game schedule, though conference games will take precedence over non-conference events. The postseason schedule will remain the same, with state tournaments scheduled for March 11-13.
Wrestling and swimming schedules have been adjusted with divisionals slated for Feb. 26-27 and state the following weekend, March 5-6, with sites and formats to be determined at a later date.
As for the regular-season guidelines?
“Wrestling is concerning because it’s a close-contact sport, for sure. But after we did some research nationally through our NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations) association, their sports medicine advisory committee, and we looked at some of the things wrestlers and wrestling people do right now in regard to infectious diseases — they deal with it all the time — so we looked at all that information and said, ‘Hey, this can be done, but it has to be done very carefully,’" Beckman said. "We’re limiting it to duals and limiting it to two matches in a day, plus they have to change singlets and all kinds of sanitation protocols will be in place.
"We will allow, for the smaller schools that don’t have a full wrestling team, they can have a mixer, but we’re limiting that to 40 wrestlers. That’s pretty low, but we believe necessary. I think everyone will have the opportunity to wrestle, they’ll have to do it through these requirements, but like I say, they know better than anyone how to deal with these particular situations.”
Swimming will also have precautionary guidelines in place -- the creation of team areas, masks worn by athletes not in competition and only current racers allowed near the starting blocks.
“The biggest concern isn’t being in a chlorinated pool or not, it was being in the pool area. If you’ve ever been to a swim meet, they’re stacked on the deck. Our swim committee at the MHSA got together on a Zoom meeting on Monday and they did a fantastic job putting this together," beamed Beckman. "The limitations that we have, to only have the kids who are going to be on the blocks at the blocks, that will be great. Everyone else has to stay in a team area until it’s their turn to come to that. But all of those things are going to be really important."
"Also the idea of being able to virtually swim — to have one team in one pool, one team 300 miles away in another pool is really a great idea," he continued. "It can happen because the pools are the same size, the conditions are the same, and then they’re able to do that. We also, in Montana, lack the availability of pools, so we have to be creative there and that virtual option is a creative option.”
Only two weeks remain in the MHSA’s fall sports calendar, which admittedly seemed questionable when fall practices began in August. Winter, though, does bring a new set of mountains to climb.
“As I’ve said before, I think the challenges are, we’re into the winter season with cold and flu, so it becomes, ‘Is it the cold or flu? Is it COVID?’ It’s all those kinds of things," said Beckman. "We are recommending, and it came from our national federation, that all coaches, officials and participants get the flu shot. That’s up to them, but I think it’s a good recommendation. We’ll deal with those things as they go along, but again, for the emotional well-being for our kids, we’re going to move forward and see how it goes, but as we did in the fall, we’re going to evaluate as we look at it, see where we’re at and see what’s going on in the state and certain communities.”
“Probably late January, first part of February because we’re a little bit later, we’ll start looking at that time and see where we’re at, then start to put together some formats," Beckman continued of the postseason site and format evaluation. "We appreciate all of our schools being flexible, because we’ve had tournaments have to be canceled in volleyball, because they couldn’t get host sites, to go to playoffs. They’re doing that and doing it well. We’re going to get this fall season in, and we’re happy about that. But we’ll have to look at that, too, and be ready to be flexible with our winter sport postseasons.”