Illinois has worked hard to get prep sports started. Can we keep it up?
Whether you call it Phase 4 or Stage 2, it means the same thing.
Game on. At least for now.
Fans of high school sports received a pleasant surprise Friday afternoon when the Illinois High School Association announced the next step of its return-to-play plan -- now known as Phase 4 instead of Stage 2, to correspond with the state's Restore Illinois plan -- was approved by the Illinois Department of Public Health. Coaches can begin using their 20 summer contact days this week.
It's been a long road toward this modified version of normalcy. Coaches and athletes were justified in celebrating.
Nearly four months ago the IHSA canceled the state boys basketball tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and statewide school closures soon followed. The spring sports season never happened, and much of the summer was lost to basic conditioning as part of the IHSA's Stage 1 plan.
But Illinois defied the trend of many states by forcing a vast reduction in the number of positive cases for COVID-19. The death rate also decreased as testing became more available and the availability of intensive care unit beds and ventilators improved.
In other words, we earned Phase 4 through our social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing.
Now we have to keep it up.
It's true that for now our prep athletes can start actual training for their respective sports. Football players can throw footballs to each other. Baseball pitchers can pitch to batters. Basketball teams can play actual basketball.
With one word from the IDPH -- yes -- a state full of eager athletes was unleashed.
Keep in mind that it can be taken away in an instant. The COVID-19 pandemic remains a threat and state officials have made it clear our Phase 4 privileges will be taken away if we regress.
On Sunday the Herald-Whig in Quincy reported that two Quincy Notre Dame football players tested positive for COVID-19. Team workouts have been suspended ... and this is in an Illinois county with only 122 confirmed cases out of more than 9,200 tests.
We're seeing athletes test positive in MLB, the NBA and MLS as professional leagues try to push through to the competition so many fans long to see.
Now it's time for IHSA athletes to give it a shot. With football practice a mere five weeks away, there's a natural instinct to hold your breath and hope for the best.
But we must do more than that.
We must keep social distancing.
We must keep wearing masks.
We must keep washing our hands.
We're too close to the finish line to slide back into Phase 3. And we will slide back if a spike in COVID-19 cases occurs.
If that happens, what was the point of the last four months? Did we already forget the heartbreak felt by all the senior athletes who never got to enjoy a spring season?
Call me paranoid, but a quick Twitter scan has me worried about a spike. There are way too many pool parties with no social distancing and no masks.
This close to competition -- with Friday night football about eight weeks away -- is it really worth the risk? And just because we might start a fall season, that doesn't mean we'll be able to finish it.
Vigilance is critical now and in the future to ensure we don't get canceled midseason.
Let's keep doing the right things and prove we deserve Phase 4. One more push to the goal line.
We've come too far to take a devastating step backward.
• Twitter: @kevin_schmit