SCVAL attempts to save sports with 11th-hour restructured schedule

Malia Wanderer and Ryan Lee

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Nelson Gifford, the Palo Alto High School athletic director, discusses the upcoming sports season and the impacts of the Santa Clara County Valley Athletic League’s modified schedule. The schedule, consisting of three seasons, has offset many sports from the Central Coast Section’s calendar, preventing athletes from competing in section playoffs. Gifford said he sympathizes with athletes who are disappointed by the prospects of this year’s season. “I understand, particularly for all our spring athletes who lost the season last year and were looking forward to this year,” Gifford said. “But we are in a league, we also have 13 other member schools that vote in terms of what we do as a league, and so we have to keep that in mind and realize that we are a community.” Photo: Malia Wanderer

Following the confusion caused by Santa Clara County announcing and then rescinding strict sports guidelines, the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League is scrambling to organize its first sports season of the school year on short notice.

While Santa Clara County was expected to follow statewide guidelines, on Jan. 26, county health officials informed all superintendents of new, stricter guidelines, which included a mandatory 25-foot distance between athletes on opposing teams. However, the next day, county health officials reversed the guidelines and decided to realign with state rules.

According to Nelson Gifford, the Palo Alto High School athletic director, community outcry in response to the new guidelines influenced the county’s decision to rescind them. 

“In some ways, I didn’t want people to know [about the county’s rules] because I didn’t want anybody to freak out, and I hoped that we would be able to take care of it internally,” Gifford said. “But I actually think that it getting out publicly, and people getting more involved, particularly the students and the parents, really let the county know how invested people are.”

SCVAL is working on scheduling its first season — cross country, swimming and diving, girls’ golf and girls’ tennis — for which competition can begin as early as Feb. 15. According to Gifford, the confusion caused by the county’s twice-revised guidelines threw a wrench in the planning process.

“I can’t say that yesterday [Jan. 27] came without consequence,” Gifford said. “We had three league meetings scheduled last night — all those meetings got canceled because we can’t hold a meeting if we can’t play. What we anticipated was to get a schedule released by Friday or Saturday; it may be pushed off until Monday or Tuesday.” 

Danny Dye, the Paly swimming and diving coach, said the short notice and chaos has forced him to work overtime to put together a training plan before the season begins.

“I’m scrambling big time … to try and get this all organized,” Dye said. “We are also one of the biggest sports and the most space-limited based on how many people can train, so we are going to have to completely change our outlook on how we do swimming.”

The SCVAL’s modified schedule consists of three seasons with sports arranged mostly by reopening tier colors. As a result, the seasons are shorter, and teams will not be able to participate in sectional and state playoffs, which has caused the SCVAL to face backlash from the local athletic community.

For seniors who are spring sport athletes, the repercussions of the SCVAL schedule are especially devastating, according to Dye.

“Right now, our seniors … they will be the only athletes that will not have an opportunity at CCS [Central Coast Section] for two years,” Dye said. 

However, despite his frustration with the league’s schedule, Dye said he is grateful for the work put in by the Paly athletic department.

“I’m proud of our school because everybody — our athletic director, our principal — they are all trying to do the right thing,” Dye said. “I know that they have made the decisions that they can make based on what is best for our school, so I don’t have any complaints whatsoever about our school.”

Gifford said he agrees that the loss of sectional playoffs is a legitimate concern; however, the schedule offers more flexibility and gives high-contact and indoor Season One sports that can’t compete in Purple Tier a chance at having a season. By diverting from the two-season CCS schedule, SCVAL can push most sports back to later in the year if the county doesn’t meet the tier requirements required for high-contact sports to compete, according to Gifford.

“The real issue with the CCS calendar is that Season One sports would be done [lose their seasons] — outside of cross country,” Gifford said. “By going with this calendar, we saved that opportunity for all those sports to compete.” 

Gifford said the SCVAL and the Paly Athletic Department hope to accommodate all sports to give athletes the best season possible.

“There’s not going to be a perfect solution to this year,” Gifford said. “The more students that we can get to play this year, the better off we are. That’s our goal — we want as many people to play as possible.”