The deepening pandemic has clouded the prospects for high school athletics resuming this school year.

Guidance released in mid-December by the California Department of Public Health stated that no competitions are to be held prior to Jan. 25 and outlined a tiered approach for resuming athletics.

That framework ties specific sports to the state’s color-coded, four-tier plan for reopening.

In the state’s purple tier, for example, in which the San Joaquin Valley region and most of the state are currently designated, cross country, track and field, tennis and golf would be approved sports.

Baseball and softball will be permitted if the region moves up one tier to the red level, but the region will have to advance two rungs into the orange tier before volleyball, soccer and football can be played. Basketball will not be allowed until the region reaches the least-restrictive yellow tier.

In regard to the planned Season 1 sports (including football and volleyball) that are scheduled for play from January through April, the Sac-Joaquin Section of the California Interscholastic Federation reported last week, it is possible that if play does resume some league opponents may not be able to play one another due to travel restrictions. In that scenario, the Section recommends Season 1 teams schedule contests they are able to play within travel guidelines.

Some local officials have suggested shuffling the sports schedules to start with those that can be played in the most restrictive tier and pushing those that require a less restrictive tier to later in the school year, in hopes that virus activity over the coming months will subside to a point which allows those sports to be played.

The Section update, however, said shuffling sports seasons does not appear a viable option.

“We do not want to jeopardize a spring sport after our spring sports were canceled for the 2019-20 season,” the Section memo stated. “The CIF put its plan together in July, and we are hopeful we will see that plan through. While the California Department of Public Health and our county color tiers will ultimately determine what is played this year, we remain hopeful the majority of our sports will be contested this year.”

Coaches and administrators offered mixed opinions on the prospects for sports being played in the second semester of the school year.

John Labno, Orestimba High’s athletic director, said the new guidance “makes it pretty clear that it will be pretty tough to get most sports in this year, just the way the numbers are. You look at football, soccer and volleyball, we would have to be in the orange tier. Football and volleyball are the ones that are supposed to happen the soonest. I don’t see that happening.”

“For basketball, this is yellow tier,” he continued. “How are we going to get there? We have been nowhere near that.”

Labno said the best opportunities are for the outdoor, low-contact sports such as track, tennis and cross-country that are authorized under the purple tier. If the region moves to the red tier, he added, playing baseball and softball could be feasible.

But another consideration, he said, is that Orestimba will be on distance learning at least through early March. He, and superintendents from both the Gustine and Newman-Crows Landing unified school districts, have indicated that playing sports before on-campus learning resumes is not viable. The Newman-Crows Landing district has not yet opened its high school campus to classroom instruction other than for small groups of students with acute needs. As the pandemic worsens, the district has suspended classroom instruction across the board until mid-March.

Gustine Unified reopened for hybrid instruction K-12, but has also suspended instruction until at least Jan. 19.

Dr. Bryan Ballenger, superintendent of the Gustine Unified School District, said Merced County districts with high schools are conversing about the feasibility partnering for an informal athletic circuit if that is what is needed to give students an opportunity to compete.

He said county districts will reach out to the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section to explore the possibility of going it alone this year and playing whatever sports the state guidance and county public health approval allows before rejoining the CIF next year.

He anticipates the CIF will likely forego planned Season 1 sports such as football and volleyball.

Ballenger acknowledged, however, that there are still many unknowns.

“We really want our kids to be able to play some games this year,” said Ballenger. “We see the necessity of kids playing sports. A high school without sports kind of defeats the purpose a little bit.”

Randy Fillpot, superintendent of the Newman-Crows Landing Unified School District, offered a bleak assessment.

“I would be surprised if there are athletics for the remainder of the year,” he told Mattos Newspapers.

Gustine High Principal and Athletic Director Adam Cano, though, said he remains optimistic that the CIF will find a way for all sports will be played, though likely with shortened seasons.

Orestimba varsity football coach Aaron Souza said the likelihood of playing this year appears increasingly uncertain, particularly if the season cannot be moved to later in the school year. Under current state orders, he said, April 16 is the latest date a football game can be played.

“If they don’t move the season, my biggest hope would be to get three to five makeshift games in March to April,” Souza commented.

But, he said, the orange tier required for football to be played is “eons away right now.”

“I feel bad for the kids,” Souza added, “but I also understand what is going on in the world.”

Kingsley Borba, varsity boys basketball coach at Gustine High, said he is not giving up on the possibility of a season being played.

But for now, he conceded, all that can be done is to wait and see how the situation plays out.

“If they said the season was a month long, I would take it,” Borba commented. “We want to play. Whatever we are able to get out of the season, we will take at this point.”

But the trends, Labno said, have not been encouraging.

“My hope has continued to dwindle as the year has gone on,” he said.

The entire situation, Labno reflected, is hard to fathom and impacts not only athletes but students whose interests run a full spectrum of activities available to them during their high school years.

If not even spring sports are played this year, Labno said, students involved in those sports will effectively have lost two full years of competition.

“For most of our kids, this is it,” he said of sports participation. “They will have lost that opportunity to participate and build those memories that will last a lifetime.”