HELENA -- Winter sports fans in Montana will have to wait a few extra weeks to get rolling.

The Montana High School Association executive board voted during a scheduled meeting on Tuesday to delay the start of winter sports -- both practices and competition -- in hopes of flattening the curve during the continued COVID-19 pandemic.

The MHSA executive board approved the motion of winter sports practices in basketball, swimming and wrestling to begin on Dec. 7, with competitions delayed until the first week of January.

Basketball practices were originally scheduled to begin on Nov. 19, while wrestling and swimming were slated to begin two days later, but as Montana continues to trend upward in positive coronavirus cases the MHSA board hopes limiting travel and exposure can help avoid the uptick in positive cases.

The MHSA will re-evaluate its guidelines and restrictions during its annual November meeting and as needed throughout the winter sports season, according to executive director Mark Beckman.

The board also adjusted its spectator policy for the postseasons in the fall sports of football, soccer and volleyball. While local county health departments will need to approve the policy, the MHSA executive board approved the following spectator numbers for both home and visiting teams:

The spectator policy for the state cross country meet, which was altered to a two-day event during a September meeting to be held on Oct. 23-24 at Rebecca Farms in Kalispell, remains two tickets per athlete to remain in compliance with the Flathead County Health Department.

Designated student sections and bands will not be permitted at postseason events, though students are allowed to be included in the spectator passes mentioned above.

Postseason volleyball formats were also discussed during the meeting, where last month's recommendation, listed below, remains in effect.

Due to COVID-19 concerns and the effort to limit exposure, postseason volleyball tournaments will follow one of two options:

  1. A single-elimination playoff bracket, where the higher seed hosts each match.
  2. A tournament format where bracket play will be held at two separate gyms or sites and can be held as a single- or double-elimination tournament as determined by the district or division. The top half of the bracket would compete at one location, while the bottom competes at the other. There will only be the two teams playing and then exiting, then the other two teams in the bracket ready for play before a break to clean and sanitize.

Each host site must have approval from its local county health department, otherwise alternate sites or the playoff format will be required. Class AA plans to conduct its postseason with the playoff format, similar to its football and soccer postseasons, according to Beckman.

Beckman said the state volleyball tournament venues are yet to be determined and that Montana State University, which typically hosts all four classifications, is likely not in the running due to the Gallatin County Health Department recommendations.

"There are a few towns interested (in hosting one state volleyball tournament)," Beckman said, "so we'll check them out and make sure we can get approvals, make sure they're comfortable and that we're comfortable. We'll bring those back to the executive board to approve those sites."

The Class AA soccer playoffs, which begin Tuesday, were also adjusted. Class AA requested shortening its playoff structure from needing three weeks to complete to two weeks. The first round will be held Oct. 13-14, with the quarterfinals scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 17. The semifinals, which were originally scheduled for the following Saturday, will be held on Oct. 20, with the state championship matches moved from Oct. 31 to Oct. 24.

The speech, debate and drama season, which had been previously postponed to December, was approved to begin its season with practices on Monday, Oct. 19. Competition will be allowed to begin on Dec. 1, with meets held virtually for the time being.

Tuesday's meeting also discussed Fairview High School's potential reclassification from Class C to Class B, but the board approved Fairview's request to remain in Class C. Fairview has 116 students as of Tuesday, according to superintendent Luke Kloker, falling within the 10-percent rule.

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