Last week, when Gov. Mike DeWine signed an order by the Ohio Department of Health permitting the return of contact sports, the Warren Harding High School football team began preparing for its opener against Cleveland Heights.
But by Monday, Cleveland Heights canceled. Scrambling, Harding officials reached out to Cleveland Benedictine, which had lost its Week One opponent, Strongsville, because of a positive COVID-19 test.
So now, Harding will take on Benedictine on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Warren's Mollenkopf Stadium.
Welcome to high school football 2020, where the opponent you think you're going to face, at least at the beginning of the week, might be someone else by week's end.
The Mahoning Valley high school football season kicks off this weekend with games scheduled for Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and few spectators in the stands.
The order that DeWine signed last Wednesday (Aug. 19) limits attendance to the fewer of 1,500 or 15 percent of permanent seating capacity. That news did not go over well with parents of players, cheerleaders and band members.
Ohio guidelines were so limiting that anyone not related to a participant was unlikely to be offered the chance to purchase a ticket.
Some schools have decided that marching bands and cheerleaders would not be making road trips.
At his weekly coronavirus briefing Tuesday, DeWine called an audible, saying schools with smaller sports venues may apply for variances.
DeWine said school districts may reach out to their local health department to submit variance plans, and the state health department will follow up.
Under the ODH order issued late last week, sporting event venues would be limited to the lesser of 15 percent of their maximum capacity or 300 people for indoor venues; 1,500 people for outdoor venues.
DeWine said it's "essential" that any variance plan still allows for at least 6 feet of social distance between family groups. Districts should consider whether the variance is necessary to allow family and friends of participants to attend and whether the variance allows them to manage the crowds of spectators.
DeWine said the variance option "was not designed" to allow big stadiums a chance to seat more spectators.
However, at least one Mahoning Valley school sees that as a solution. Lowellville High School, which has one of the Valley's smallest stadiums, will play home games at nearby Struthers High School beginning Thursday against Jackson-Milton.
Parents of cheerleaders for Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference schools have started a petition asking the conference to allow some cheerleaders to attend road games. As of Tuesday afternoon, 683 had signed.
Speaking of big stadiums, on Tuesday morning it appeared there was a chance that fans with no player connections might have a shot at seeing a game. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Chaney and Ursuline are playing a Steel Valley Conference game at Youngstown State University's Stambaugh Stadium, where the Irish play their home games.
Stambaugh Stadium is big enough to handle a socially distanced crowd of 1,500, and both schools announced Monday that they would be selling general admission tickets.
But on Tuesday afternoon, the general admission ticket sale was canceled. According to WKBN, Ursuline released a statement saying that no tickets for the general public will be sold at this time. The release said Ursuline consulted with YSU and Youngstown City Health Department before making its decision.
When the high school schedules were created before the coronavirus pandemic, Harding was going to open against Canton McKinley.
But the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Ohio High School Athletic Association to tweak its traditional fall plans. In order to get DeWine's approval for football and soccer to resume, the OHSAA needed to find a way to end the football season before the first weekend of December because of fear of the flu season mixing with the pandemic could lead to another medical crisis and shutdown.
So the cash-strapped OHSAA, which did not earn its usual revenue for state tournaments for winter and spring sports, revamped its football playoff season to begin in Week 7. The OHSAA gets the revenue from all playoff games.
That meant athletic directors had to tweak their schedules, essentially dropping non-conference games for a six-week league schedule.
This year, all teams qualify for the postseason, not just the top eight in each region. And teams eliminated early have the option to play more regular-season games. Also, teams do not have to enter the tournament in exchange for more regular-season games.
The OHSAA plan is to finish the football season Nov. 21.
Normally, a team has three games to prepare for conference play. Not this year as many marquee matchups are set for this weekend:
- Thursday, Howland travels to Canfield in a 7 p.m. game between former All-American Conference rivals. Canfield is in its second season as an independent after it was not invited to join the Northeast 8 in 2018.
- Friday, Boardman will play archrival Fitch at 7 p.m. in Falcons Stadium in Austintown, while Poland travels to South Range for a Northeast 8 showdown. Last year, Poland advanced to the Division IV state semifinals. In 2017, South Range advanced to the Division V state semifinals.
- Also Friday, Steubenville will play Cardinal Mooney at Stambaugh Stadium at 7 p.m. in Carl Pelini's debut as Mooney's head coach. Last season, Pelini was the YSU defensive coordinator when his brother, Bo, was head coach.
- And on Friday, Springfield will open with a trip to Mineral Ridge at 7 p.m. in defense of its 2019 Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference crown. Springfield won its first 14 games last season before losing in the Division VI state championship game at Canton's Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
- Harding will take on Benedictine on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Warren's Mollenkopf Stadium.
- Saturday's other game has East Palestine playing Valley Christian at Campbell Memorial High School at 7 p.m.
What happens after this weekend is anyone's guess. Schedules are made, but positive COVID-19 tests can shut down teams and shred schedules. Just ask Warren Harding officials.
Here are other games scheduled for this weekend, keeping in mind that last-minute changes are possible.
Jefferson at Niles, 7 p.m.
McDonald at Sebring, 7 p.m.
Crestview at Champion, 7 p.m.
East vs. Cleveland Shaw at Euclid High School, 7 p.m.
Edison at Lisbon, 7 p.m.
Girard at Lakeview, 7 p.m.
LaBrae at Campbell, 7 p.m.
Liberty at Brookfield, 7 p.m.
Salem at West Branch, 7 p.m.
Southern at Leetonia, 7 p.m.
United at Columbiana, 7 p.m.
Warrensville Heights at Warren JFK, 7 p.m.
Western Reserve at Waterloo, 7 p.m.