Maybe New Orleans isn’t a viable championship destination in 2020 after all.
Last week, rumors swirled about the LHSAA considering other venue options —Natchitoches’ Northwestern State University was mentioned for instance — as a potential replacement championship site in 2020. The rumors were not confirmed, and for the most part, were excused as backup plans at most.
To the LHSAA, I’ve got five words for you: you’re on the right path.
Right now it seems our biggest fears are being realized. Back in the summer, when many weighed in on the prospect of simply having a season, there were those who pointed to flu season and stated just how difficult it would be to pull off a postseason even if we get there.
To the LHSAA’s credit, the organization has pulled off a football season, even though it’s been stop-and-go for most Ouachita Parish schools due to contact tracing rules. But now the postseason is here, and we’re in the midst of what Gov. John Bel Edwards called a “third surge” as it relates to the positivity rate for COVID-19. With restrictions likely getting stricter before they loosen in the next month or so, should the LHSAA call an audible and switch venues for its state championship sites? I say yes, rather emphatically.
This has actually been my viewpoint for a few weeks now. To play in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the LHSAA would be locked into the Dec. 26-28 dates because of the New Orleans Saints playing on Christmas and the preparation required to host the Sugar Bowl days later. LHSAA executive director Eddie Bonine said as much in November on a conference call with media members.
So it’s already a tight fit, which wasn’t going to be a problem since the LHSAA decided teams would advance in the playoffs should an opponent be unfit to play due to contact tracing and/or positive tests.
However, during that aforementioned conference call, Bonine also stated that fans would have to clear out of the Superdome after every single game for crews to sanitize the dome for the ensuing state title game. Who knows how long of a process that would take? I don’t have to tell Sterlington fans how long those championship days can be, as Sterlington and Eunice did not kick off until 8:20 p.m. in 2018. And as you could imagine, a 59-47 shootout took quite a few hours before concluding. Keep in mind that kickoff was the third game of the day with the first contest beginning at noon. Does this mean games would have to move up to 10 or 11 a.m.? Which team is signing up for that time slot? Not everybody at once, please.
The Superdome hoped to open up to 15,000 fans by December, but an agreement with Mayor Latoya Cantrell depended on “health and safety benchmarks being met, exceeded and maintained in the community and state.” Obviously, this recent spike has forced the LHSAA’s hand to begin forming a contingency plan.
Somewhat surprisingly, most coaches I’ve talked to share my opinion on this issue. Most just want an opportunity to play in front of their own fans, and they also understand that could prove to be difficult in New Orleans.
I was probably most surprised to hear OCS head coach Steven Fitzhugh agree with me. As you can remember, Fitzhugh fought for his team to have the opportunity to play in the Superdome last year, and I’d be willing to say you won’t find any other coach who values playing in the Superdome more than Fitzhugh. Even Fitzhugh agreed that if ever there was a year to play this game elsewhere, 2020 was the year.
"I would definitely say everything is subject to change," Fitzhugh said with a chuckle. "I hate that because it is a dream, but 2020 has been a year where nothing is normal."
And it seems like the LHSAA is coming to grips with this.
Bonine has had his share of critics over the years, and you could argue the LHSAA hasn’t been perfect in shaping its postseason procedure. Having said that, you cannot deny the lengths Bonine and the LHSAA have gone to try and give high school students athletic seasons. And I applaud that.
Bonine works tirelessly to try and produce an adequate state championship experience, and that's really all you can ask for at this point.
That’s not an easy job in 2020. Here’s to hoping players get to live their dream playing for a state title in front of their fans, wherever that may be.