Marinating on the two-hour drive from Wichita to Topeka after the state track meet, KSHSAA Executive Director Bill Faflick had an epiphany.
The head of high school sports in Kansas couldn’t believe the state had made it through an entire year of fall, winter and spring sports.
“Wow, it happened.”
High school sports slogged through a year hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic. No season was left untouched.
But every state championship was held. Fall sports started on time and spring sports ended on time.
“I was very humbled to be part of a process that allowed kids to have opportunities,” Faflick said. “I felt tremendous pride in the work of our staff and our governing board in the most normal way possible in the most abnormal year we’ve every experienced.”
Now the task of looking ahead lies ahead of KSHSAA staff, coaches and administrators around Kansas. 2021-22 is the year where a return to normal is the expectation.
“We’re going to try to push forward in getting things to the way they were,” said Mike Kastle, a KSHSAA Executive Board member, Parsons USD 503 board member and commissioner of the Three Rivers League.
But what does normal look like? And what did the pandemic teach KSHSAA?
“We are always looking forward. We’ve been planning for summer activities that are already underway,” Faflick said. “The planning continues, is being finalized and are being executed.
“We’re focused on kids having opportunities under our normal rules this summer. Whether it’s spirit camps or strength and conditioning. Then we’ll prepare for the fall season. We’re full speed ahead towards our 2021-22 school year.”
Enhanced planning and coordination is a priority for KSHSAA — a year spent making spur-of-the-moment adjustments on the fly exposed weaknesses in the association’s ability to convey information quickly.
“One of the key pieces we learn is how to best communicate,” Faflick said. “Some of the strategies will continue on with regards to our stakeholders. Whether it’s pre-state championship Zoom meetings with coaches or more frequent announcements to all of our member schools.”
A more frequent newsletter sent out to all schools from the KSHSAA office is one example of how the association is trying to keep members in the loop.
“We learned to be more efficient and strategic with our communication,” Faflick said. “Those are things that will continue in a refined mode.”
An ability to quickly adapt was another iteration of KSHSAA’s learning process this past year.
“I thought we showed good leadership and grace,” Kastle said. “We had five Kansas City schools that played football in the spring and hopefully we don’t have to do that again. But we worked hard to be flexible enough to let schools have those opportunities. Our staff and association did a great job of making adjustments as we went along.”
For KSHSAA, a return to normal means a return to evolution.
The association is in the midst of preparing a multiplier proposal for the ongoing public-private classification issue.
“The public-private work group that was assembled will meet in our office next week to put together a plan,” Faflick said. “They’ll create a final product that will flush out a multiplier, which was the preference of the survey we sent out.”
It’s in the process of installing unified bowling, a Special Olympics sport that operates with a handicap in an effort to integrate students with disabilities along mainstream student-athletes.
“We want to reflect inclusiveness for those that have physical, cognitive or demographic variations,” Faflick said. “You don’t just flip a switch for that process. Activities are part of that.”
KSHSAA recently watched from the sidelines at the Kansas Legislature’s attempt to pass a bill barring transgender athletes from participating in women’s sports, which was vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly.
The association has no handbook policy on transgender athletes, but recommends that students be allowed to participate in sports aligned with their gender identity at each school’s discretion.
“We want to be an activities association the provides opportunities for all kids to represent their schools,” Faflick said. “Sexual identity should not disqualify from participation. It’s not a divisive issue for us and our schools have worked with us. Our board does not perceive this to be a problem, so a solution other than what we’re already implementing may not be necessary.”
Faflick and other KSHSAA administration are also exploring any potential postseason structure changes. Playoffs for nearly all sports were affected in some way by the pandemic and KSHSAA is grading what worked and what failed.
I know there’s talk of only taking four teams to the state site in volleyball and basketball, but I don’t know if that’s something we want to do,” Kastle said. “That’s something we’ll evaluate this month and maybe again down the road.”
Faflick made clear though that KSHSAA intends to return the state track championships to the traditional two-day, all classes event.
“What we’ve had up until this year wasn’t broken,” Faflick said. “There were pros and cons to the new structure, but a lot of coaches were just happy to compete. There were a lot of coaches who want to have the preliminaries over a two-day event. I would anticipate going back to a traditional two-day event.”
Reflections will continue as the next KSHSAA executive board meeting in mid-June approaches. It was clear that throughout 2020-21, the most resistance to any adaptations came from nearly every group outside of the actual students.
“Sometimes it didn’t seem like there was a lot of grace extended by some stakeholder groups,” Faflick said. “But having high grace and high truth from the association, that will continue. We’ll continue to operate in that manner and model it for the rest of the state.”
Undoubtedly the most divisive issue was the limiting of fans to start the winter sports season. KSHSAA initially passed a measure barring all fans from winter sports to start the season before an appeal to allow two parents per participant was successful.
“The hardest thing was limiting the fans,” Kastle said. “It was also hard to get some schools to follow the guidelines. At (USD 503), we did a great job. Other schools didn’t. But limiting the fans, especially during basketball season, wasn’t easy.”
In fact, it was the students that often provided the least resistance and showed the most resilience through the pandemic.
“We have great kids in Kansas and we needed to do our very best to give them great opportunities,” Faflick said. “Hopefully the opportunities that they experienced this year were a reward for doing all of the things they were asked to do throughout the year.”
A return to normal has become the battle cry for those anxious to escape the confines COVID-19 imposed. That return seems to be just around the corner.
But a return to normal, for KSHSAA, means taking the lessons learned from the pandemic and making activities across Kansas more accessible and equitable.
“My priority is always going to be the same,” Kastle said. “That’s to provide the best opportunity in any activity. We’re going to do the best we can every year to give our kids a chance to compete.”