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On again, off again: When will they play basketball?

Payton Vallee rebounds for SJO
Payton Vallee pulls down a rebound for the Spartans in her team's regional title game against Villa Grove earlier this year. Vallee, who will be a senior this season, and thousands of high school basketball players around the state remain hopeful they will have a season. Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks
Once again, the Governor of Illinois caught the IHSA off-guard with another preemptive announcement.

Earlier today, Governor JB Pritzker told Illinoisans that all prep winter sports, including basketball would be "moved into spring" season. The announcement is the third chapter in this week's drama concerning the fate of high school sports. Meanwhile, as the state's Coronavirus positivity creeps even higher, the Illinois High School Association's decision to follow through with starting girls and boys basketball on November 16.

The IHSA's move on the COVID chess board yesterday was check, putting the actual decision of whether or not to suit up squarely in the lap of bishops tasked with running local school districts.

Shortly thereafter the IHSA response, the Governor made it clear it would be detrimental for schools to attempt to engage in interscholastic competition with the full intention of leveraging the weight of the Illinois State Board of Education — which controls funding to public schools — to ensure compliance from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The anticipation of getting back on the hardwood to compete by coaches and players in a little more than two weeks lasted only hours when a letter from ISBE superintendent Dr. Carmen Ayala reiterated the state's position with veiled, but poignant threat to school districts considering defying the governor's original proclamation on Tuesday postponing the winter sports season.

"Public health experts have determined that basketball poses a high risk of COVID-19 transmission and is not currently safe to play," Ayala wrote. "Defying the state's public health guidance opens schools up to liability and other ramifications that may negatively impact school communities."

The IHSA literally had no words after Governor Pritzker's press conference today.

"The IHSA has not received additional outreach from the Governor’s office or IDPH since Tuesday, and as a result, are not comfortable commenting," Matt Troha, Assistant Executive Director for the IHSA, wrote in an emailed to The Sentinel.

The on again, off again shift every 24 hours has school district scrambling for legal advice, coaches and AD looking at schedule options yet again and players wondering if they'll actually be able to play before a home crowd.

"It has been absolutely nuts and to be honest, the back and forth is getting exhausting," SJO boys basketball head coach Kiel Duval admitted. "Like I said today, we talk about in our program all the time about working together, teamwork, putting aside our personal agendas and doing what is best for the team. It would be nice if the people making these big decisions would take that same approach."

However, according to a story in the Lincoln Courier posted just after supper, IHSA executive director Craig Anderson said he didn't believe that the Governor would actually allow basketball to be played in the spring. At least for the moment - who knows what new plot twist will be tossed into the mix on All-Hallows Eve - Anderson plans for the show to go on as planned next month.

"All the things that are in place with COVID right now that are preventing us from playing medium and high-risk category sports could still be in place in the spring," Anderson said. "Nothing has changed. We’re still playing. We aren’t playing basketball in the spring or summer. We’ve approved basketball to be played in the winter, and that’s what we are moving ahead with."

In an email to the Chicago Sun-Times, Jordan Abudayyeh, Governor Pritzker’s press secretary, said, "The goal has never been to cancel seasons, but to rather postpone the seasons with the hope that by the spring there will be a vaccine or effective treatment that will allow more students to report to in school in person and participate in extracurricular activities.

"There are currently 1.8 million students in the state who are in remote learning right now and as the Governor has said, he is focused on bringing down positivity rates in communities across the state so local school boards feel comfortable enough to bring students back into the classroom."

Duval said the situation, a new power struggle between Bloomington and Springfield now taking shape, is "taking a toll on a lot of student athletes" as it continues to intensify.

"Yesterday was a day that our guys enjoyed. It was good to see some of their faces (under their masks of course) and the feeling as if there were brighter days ahead. Then it switched, then it switched back," Duval said. "What I told them today was worry about what we can control. We can control where our head is at when things get started again. We will be locked in, ready to go."

Like thousands of high school players around the state, the Spartans are ready to make a name for themselves this season.

"Our guys want to be on the court so bad right now, we just talked about how the road to that may not be a smooth one. Can't get too up, or too down. Stay positive and hope for the best," Duval said. "I really hope our guys get a chance to play. They absolutely deserve this."

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