BY LEROY BOYER

It’s been a trying year for the athletic directors at the area’s high schools.

It’s not going to get any easier.

The PIAA’s approval Wednesday of the recommendations from the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, comprised of 18 medical professionals from across the state, cleared the way for fall sports to begin on time.

It also left local athletic directors with a new wave of challenges, from setting up personal health assessments for all athletes and coaches, to coordinating social distancing and sanitizing areas at games and competitions, to enforcing the new restrictions, to solving transportation issues, to finding answers on how to fund everything on a budget that won’t be helped by ticket revenue from spectators.

That is, if fall sports actually happen. At any time, Gov. Tom Wolf and Pennsylvania Department of Health director Dr. Rachel Levine could shut down interscholastic athletics altogether.

In an email sent out to the athletic directors at The Republican-Herald’s 21 local schools, responses expressed excitement that their school’s student-athletes would get a chance to compete in 2020, but also discussed safety concerns over keeping those student-athletes and their coaches safe from COVID-19.

“I’d say probably the right move at the moment,” Pine Grove’s Scott Dimon said. “Information, statistics and state guidelines are changing weekly. The current PIAA action allows schools to plan accordingly, knowing it could change in either direction at any time.”

“The PIAA is doing their best with the information they have,” Hamburg’s Aaron Menapace chimed in.

Added Minersville’s Rich Dry: “I’m very happy that the athletes will get to play. It will be strange seeing them play without any fans, and hopefully we can work it out for the fans to watch some live stream version of the game.

“The 800-pound gorilla in the room is, of course, COVID-19 hanging over our heads. At any given time, we can find ourselves not playing two football games or 7-8 soccer or volleyball games in a two-week period.”

The PIAA did several things at its meeting Wednesday, in addition to approving the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee’s recommendations.

First, it gave schools three options on when they wanted to start their respective seasons (see related story). Several athletic directors and football coaches consulted for this story thought the PIAA might delay the start of the fall sports season until September or October. The Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association proposed such an option last week.

Several Schuylkill County school districts have unveiled plans for opening their schools over the last several days, most of which included some kind of combination of in-school and online learning.

“I am glad that the student athletes may have a chance to have their fall athletic seasons. However, I am concerned for everyone’s safety and health during this process,” said Peter Sanfilippo, Marian’s new athletic director. “I was visioning the PIAA delaying the start of the fall athletic season to after schools reopen for the fall semester (kind of what New York and New Jersey did). This would have given us an idea of how our schools safety plans are working and if we could gradually include athletics and extracurricular activities.”

LINDSEY SHUEY / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Pottsville’s Justin McClure attempts to block a pass to Williams Valley’s Jesse Engle during a 7-on-7 scrimmage Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Williamstown. Upper Dauphin, Mount Carmel and Northern Lebanon also competed.

 

Second, PIAA released “Return to Competition” guidelines, a 26-page document that provides recommendations for a safe return to play on a sport-by-sport basis. Those guidelines include no fans at any sporting events, the requirement for everyone to wear a facemask except for athletes actively engaged in competition, and a series of facility restrictions for parking, entering and exiting the facility, benches and locker rooms.

The No. 1 task at hand is to keep everyone involved safe. If a player tests positive for COVID-19 during the season, the entire team must quarantine for 14 days.

“The ultimate concern is keeping everyone healthy and safe,” North Schuylkill’s Jim Gross said. “As athletic administrators, we all want the fall sport season to start up and continue on as planned. But, I believe we also have the right perspective on things as well.

“We know that the current situation in our area, state and country is very serious, and we are treating it as such. Athletics should not resume if they cannot be done safely. We all understand the importance that athletics play in the development of young men and women, but at the end of the day, our No. 1 priority is to ensure their safety.

“If the sport season ends up causing more positive COVID cases and losses of life, then it should be suspended immediately, and not resume until it is absolutely safe to do so.”

Financially, local school districts will face budget crunches when it comes to paying for additional transportation to and from events, and purchasing extra items needed to comply with safety and health guidelines for athletes and coaches.

School districts and athletic directors may have to get creative, from having coaches travel to games in their personal vehicles, to reducing the number of athletes that travel to road games, to rescheduling events to avoid multiple teams traveling on the same day.

The large number of sports played in the fall — football, boys’ and girls’ soccer, boys’ and girls’ cross country, girls’ volleyball, golf, tennis and junior high girls’ basketball — adds to the dilemma.

“This will have a very detrimental effect to the athletic budget,” Dry said. “With no income and still having to staff the event, pay officials, lights … it won’t take long until we are operating in the red.

“The transportation question is huge,” Dry continued. “If it’s 12 to 24 kids, that will be a tremendous impact on the budget. Do we develop travel squads? Do coaches, except for one per bus, drive separately? Will schools have enough buses?

“Certain days in the fall are tough to schedule transportation to begin with. On a Monday, there could be away junior high/junior varsity football, away volleyball, away boys’ soccer, away girls’ soccer. Now, you may need two or three times the buses. That is not feasible.”

WARREN RUDA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Hazleton Area High School football team members take part in a weight training exercise during a summer conditioning session at Harman-Geist Stadium in July 2020.

 

While the PIAA gave the go-ahead for fall sports to begin on time, it didn’t do so in an assertive way, putting much of the decisions back on the local schools, leagues and their PIAA districts.

That left a lot of doubt whether or not fall sports will actually take place. For now, heat acclimatization practices for football begin Aug. 10, with practices for all fall sports beginning Aug. 17. Football scrimmages are set for Saturday, Aug. 22, with the opening night of high school football slated for Friday, Aug. 28.

A lot can change between now and then.

“I am happy with the PIAA’s decision to continue forth with the fall sports season,” Gross said. “This gives athletes something to continue to look forward to in a very uncertain time.

“Many athletes have been working hard to prepare for the upcoming season, and (Wednesday’s) decision gives them hope that all of their preparation wasn’t in vain.”

Contact the writer: Lboyer@republicanherald.com; 570-628-6026