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Hope remains for a spring sports season for Tampa Bay high schools

The Florida High School Athletic Association announces that it is looking into various options to continue the season, including extending it through June.

Josh Saunders had no way of knowing that a March 11 game may have been his team’s final matchup of the season. Days before spring break, his Robinson flag football team defeated Tampa Catholic 40-6.

The coach said he would have done things differently to ensure his seniors got a proper sendoff with the high school spring sports season still in question due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We would have done our senior night on Wednesday,” he said. “When you walk off the field for the last time in your high school career, you should know that it’s your last time. They didn’t get that opportunity.”

But the opportunity may not be lost.

Following Monday’s announcement that public schools will remain closed until May 1, the Florida High School Athletic Association announced Tuesday afternoon that all sports-related activities will remain postponed through at least May 3. Emphasis on postponed.

The state’s governing body for varsity athletics is looking at various options to continue spring sports, which includes extending athletic seasons through June 30.

And after speaking with multiple coaches and school officials in Tampa Bay, it appears there is a general consensus on the situation at hand: Some hope is better than no hope at all.

“When the FHSAA says they’re exhausting every possible outcome to get our kids back on the field, court or track, that’s a good sign,” Berkeley Prep baseball coach Richie Warren said. “That’s a good sign that we will have a chance to play for some sort of a district or state title. This is the first step — having a plan to get kids back on the field.”

The last day of school for Pasco County is May 27, May 29 for Pinellas and Hernando, and May 30 for Hillsborough. The pandemic has impacted baseball, softball, tennis, lacrosse, flag football, track and field and spring football workouts.

Saunders said he had a Zoom video conference with his seniors recently. It went as well as he could have anticipated, but he feels for these student-athletes who have waited three years for a starting position only to be told they can’t play. Robinson was seeking its fifth straight state title this year.

“The number of things they would give up, not to play again, just to practice,” he said. “The whole thing is very sad.”

The worst situation Saunders said he can think of is one where the governing body allows sports to resume, but the county does not. It’s a situation Hernando County is already in, having canceled athletic events through the end of this school year.

“There’s nothing wrong with hope,” the long-time Robinson coach said. “If there’s a way, whatever that way is, (my players) want to do it. And if that way is playing into June, then they’ll play into June. If it means delaying some sort of family vacation, then the family will do it. When you’re a senior athlete, there is nothing more important than your last season of anything.”

Warren, who has coached at Berkeley since 2014 and previously was at Jesuit, said he is unsure what the process will look like if high school athletics resume in May. Tuesday’s news is promising given how the past few weeks have looked, he added.

“I think us, as a community, we’re doing everything possible to get these kids back on the field by staying at home and doing things to keep others in our community safe,” Warren said. “I would love to see not only my boys but others around the state be rewarded for that and have a chance to get back on the field, even if it’s only for a senior night — something to recognize what the youth of this country is doing to do their part and keep people safe.”

Pasco County’s Matt Wicks said he’ll be one of many athletic directors from the state brainstorming the logistics of a re-start to the season and any possible pitfalls on a Zoom call Wednesday. They’ll also discuss how the resumption of spring athletics could impact fall sports.

And the state organization is working on a plan for spring student-athletes — who haven’t competed since March 18 — to gain “additional eligibility.” The postseason for many sports was initially scheduled to start by the last week in April.

According to bylaw 9.5.1: “A student is limited to eight consecutive semesters of eligibility beginning with the semester he/she begins ninth grade for the first time. This does not imply that the student has eight semesters of participation. After eight consecutive semesters, the student is permanently ineligible.”

Saunders said he is looking forward to the beginning of May, when he hopes things will be back to normal. It’s what people in the community need, he added.

“They talk about morale boosting in the case that the Lightning play or the Rays play, and how everybody would be very into it. And everybody will be very into it, but nothing hits home like high school sports,” he said. “This just reeks of the hometown community coming together, that kind of thing. And I think in this situation, with how everything is in the world...the passion of people who aren’t getting paid, aren’t getting (college) scholarships, is inspirational.”

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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