Athletes returned to Stillwater Area High School this week for the start of the Summer Pony Performance Strength and Conditioning program, but with a new set of policies and guidelines in place to mitigate risks associated with COVID-19.

“It’s actually nice to see people come back up here,” SAHS Activities Director Ricky Michel said.

The school district adopted a Safety Procedures and Preparedness Plan follows state guidelines to help limit risks for participating athletes. The biggest difference from previous years is now having more sessions with fewer athletes in each grouping.

“We can only take 10 athletes at a time,” Michel said. “By doing so, we can get in 21 groups of 10.”

There were 210 spots available with the new alignment and about 190-195 of those spots were filled. The 90-minute sessions are held Mondays, Tuesday and Thursdays, with the earliest group starting at 6:40 a.m.

The start times are staggered for each 10-person grouping, which means there are no more than 10 people arriving and leaving at the same time.

Each session involves four different stations — two speed training and two weight training.

“We are trying to limit the traffic and we have flow charts getting from station to station,” Michel said. “It’s actually pretty good. “The negative is that they get 10 minutes less (per day), but the positive is that the instructor to athlete ratio is 10 to 1, so you’re not going to get a better ratio than that. Before it was 20 or 25 to 1.”

The process is orderly. Athletes are expected to arrive at the Pony Stadium entrance five minutes before the start of their sessions and leave immediately after completing the final station. Drinking fountains are closed, so participates are required to bring their own water bottles. Hand sanitizer stations are set up and equipment is sanitized after each use.

“They’re supposed to come with a water bottle and themselves,” Michel said. “The locker rooms will not be open all summer.”

Some athletes and their families are taking a more cautious approach to activities as things start to re-open, which might help explain why overall participation numbers are down slightly for the program, which started on June 8 and runs through Aug. 6.

“If you don’t want your child to participate, that’s no problem,” Michel said. “But we’re going to train because other communities are doing it and the state has allowed it. Why wouldn’t you try to get kids back to some kind of a routine? It’s not going to be normal, but it’s going to be a routine.”

Teams are also allowed to begin summer practices on June 15. The summer waiver period begins on Monday and runs through Aug. 7, but the no-contact period was reduced from what is typically a full week down to just July 3-5.

This will also look different than past years. The new guidelines provide the biggest challenge for indoor sports like volleyball and basketball, which are limited to just 10 players and a coach per court.

“Unfortunately for us, the demand of gym time is three to four times greater than it’s ever been,” Michel said. “That’s the hurdle the coaches are dealing with, but the ratios will be good and you should get a fairly intense workout and you should get some feedback.”

Swimming is allowed up to 16 athletes in the pool at a time while gymnastics restrictions have yet to be determined. The impact is slightly less for sports like football and lacrosse, but they will also be limited to the number of athletes and coaches on the field at one time. The primary limitation for cross country is maintaining proper social distance at all times.

All coaches were required to submit a plan to work out with athletes, Michel noted.

Football is allowed to start with the other sports on June 15, but instead of spacing out their 11 contact days they will be grouped together in July.

“It’s still the same 11 contact days, but they’re doing things a little bit different and being hands off during June and ramping it up in July,” Michel said. “I think that’s a good idea.”

Michel said extra precautions and guidelines are a worthy trade-off for allowing a return to action for athletes, but acknowledges that none of this is easy.

“The kids want to be around each other,” Michel said. “They see each other and they want to talk and give each other high-fives. The distancing part is the No. 1 thing we’re dealing with.”

Contact Stuart Groskreutz at stuart.groskreutz@apgecm.com

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