‘We had to do something’: Why dozens of local districts are scheduling out-of-county competitions this winter

The Middleton-Cross Plains District is among the latest to announce its plan for a January, February winter sports season

MIDDLETON, Wis.– It’s ‘better late than never’ for hundreds of local high school athletes, who are getting ready to put back on their uniforms and hit the court, ice, or mat for a shorter winter sports season.

They’re also preparing to spend more time on the road.

Middleton-Cross Plains is among the school districts exclusively scheduling out-of-county games this January and February to allow hockey, basketball, and wrestling teams to compete. Gymnastics and swimming teams have already started their seasons, thanks to virtual meets and social distancing.

“We’ve been a little slower,” explained Perry Hibner, Community Relations/Education Foundation Specialist for the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District. “And we’ve been cautious.”

It’s taken Hibner, Middleton-Cross Plains coaches, and athletic director Jamie Sims several months to devise a plan that will allow student athletes to safely play; the possibility was first discussed in November, when the WIAA announced a shorter fall sports season for spring 2021, but no alternative for winter athletes.

“We had to do something,” Hibner said. “If we didn’t, our kids wouldn’t have a chance to participate. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that, as important as the school day is, it’s what they do with their extra curriculars that sets kids up for success.”

“Giving them this opportunity, while being safe, is something we felt we could do,” he added.

Sims, the Middelton-Cross Plain athletic director, agreed. “Our athletes deserve the opportunity and option. We feel it is deserving of them to have the chance to compete within our athletic programs so long as they can adhere to the plans we have in place in an effort to keep our athletes, staff, and community safe.”

Belleville, Waunakee, DeForest, Verona, McFarland, Monona Grove, Mount Horeb, Sun Prairie, Oregon, Stoughton, Wisconsin Heights and Deerfield are among the Dane County schools that have joined Middleton to allow for out-of-county competition. Madison Edgewood and Marshall had already been doing so. Because the Madison Metropolitan School District is continuing with online learning, it will not allow any in-person athletics at this time.

What will the winter sports season look like for the schools participating?

Local districts are still sorting out the details, but here’s what we know so far: This year’s winter sport season will be shorter. Most teams will have ten or fewer games/competitions. No events will take place in Dane County, following guidelines outlined by Public Health Madison & Dane County. And most districts, including Middleton, won’t play any schools where fans are allowed.

“We don’t want to put more people in an indoor gathering than possible,” said Hibner. “So it’s not going to look like it did in the past. But families are happy to have something rather than nothing.”

He also hopes the decision will have a positive impact on the mental health of student-athletes.

“There’s an overall need and desire to do things socially,” said Hibner. “And we are allowing that to be done in a safe environment.”

“The in-person relationship building is very different from behind a screen or through an email,” Sims added. “The Middleton community has been very welcoming, accepting, and shown a lot of grace for our athletic department during these unprecedented times.”

Unfortunately, not all winter athletes at schools allowing out-of-county competition will be able to participate. For example, Middleton High School won’t have a winter girls’ hockey season, since the team usually partners with Madison high schools, which aren’t allowing competition.