Coaches from around the Main Line reacted this past week to the PIAA’s announcement Aug. 7 to push the fall sports schedule back two weeks and continue to search for a way to play fall sports safely. The coaches’ feelings were decidedly mixed.
Some of the coaches are grateful that the possibility of a fall sports season still exists.
“I’m totally excited and grateful,” said Harriton football coach Justin Mellor. “Our attendance and effort during offseason voluntary workouts has been better than ever and we are so excited to continue to work together.”
Harriton girls’ soccer coach Jeff Rhodes said, “I am hopeful that we will have some type of meaningful season where players can continue to develop their craft in a supportive environment.”
Several coaches mentioned the need for sacrifice in the interests of everyone’s health and safety.
“I feel that [the PIAA’s] statement of ‘a reasonably safe environment for student athletes to participate’ says it all,” said Conestoga girls’ volleyball coach Diana Felker. “To me this means they feel there are acceptable levels of infection to them to justify having competition.
“There should not be any acceptable infections, deaths, etc. just to play a sport. This is a time when people have to make some sacrifices for the health and safety of others. I don’t have a problem with pushing the season back. I don’t want to get sick and I don’t want any of my players to get sick, nor anyone else. It is not worth the risk to me.”
Many of the coaches can see the arguments on both sides.
“My feelings are definitely very mixed,” said Lower Merion girls’ volleyball coach Lauren Perri. “We of course want this season to happen more than anything, but of course the safety of our players comes first. It is definitely tough to swallow the possibility that we may not be able to get competitions in, especially this year, as it is the biggest senior class we have ever had and just such a special group.
“I am happy that the PIAA is at least giving us a little hope or chance for the season, but to me it seems like the schools will ultimately shut it down anyway. Every league is on such different footing. As of now [August 9], the Central League is only going to compete against each other and that is not even going to start until Oct. 1. We have discussed moving it to the spring, but that has not even remotely been approved and would definitely be difficult when you think of multi-sport athletes and other scheduling issues.
“It is just super-disheartening for any athlete, coach or player involved. No one likes to take a loss, but to not even have the chance is a whole other story. We also have a ton of players that are trying to get recruited, which is almost impossible right now and even harder when other states are running as normal.
“I do think things can run safely, but it takes a lot of sacrifices from the athletes in other areas, like not socializing in big groups. Our girls have done a tremendous job of getting used to playing with the masks and sanitizing every five minutes. We have only done drills where they can keep six feet apart, as well. So far it feels safe, but we know we cannot get too comfortable and let our guard down in this situation.”
Conestoga cross country coach Richard Hawkins said, “Initially when Governor Wolf declared his recommendation for no fall sports, I was completely defeated. After today’s [Aug. 7] announcement from the PIAA, I feel there is some hope to salvage something for the 2020 fall season. I understand the reasoning behind both Governor Wolf and the PIAA for the decisions they needed to make, I would not want to be in their shoes.
“I truly believe that the safety of the athletes, coaches, and their respective families is the top priority of all entities involved. I do respect the fact that the PIAA will take some more time to delve deeper into measures that need to be taken in order for everyone to return to play. It breaks my heart to think of all time and hard work that all the coaches and athletes have put into their programs to have them possibly erased by a global pandemic, but I understand the reasons that may occur.”
One of the fall sports that is conducive to social distancing is golf, which is pointed out by Harriton golf coach Brian Dobak.
“I think virtual education is the right play for bigger public schools such as Harriton,” said Dobak. “And as long teams strictly adhere to the districts health and safety plans, I think green lighting sports is a good idea for the sanity and well-being of the kids.
“I realize some sports don’t lend themselves well to social distance as well as other sports do. In the case of golf, we believe that golf is a sport that is well positioned for success, health and safety, perhaps more than any other high school sport. Between the District’s mandated health and safety plan requirements, and precautions that we’re taking as a program that are more specific to golf, the parents and kids should feel very good and confident about the prospects of their involvement in golf.
“A few other positive things to consider: 1) Golf is outdoors and is conducive to social distance, 2) Local, regional and national junior tours have been staging tournaments and going strong all summer and haven’t experienced any issues, 3) Golf courses have been open and active and haven’t experienced any issues.”
Many of the coaches and players just want to see resolution of this issue.
“I’m a little disappointed [in the PIAA announcement] – I wish they would have just made a decision,” said Vailla Maria volleyball coach Peggy Evans. “A student might forget what they learned in a classroom, but they’ll never forget their experiences on their athletic team.
“Sports teach kids things like coping skills, teamwork and time organization. At a time like this especially, the kids need to play. We can do [fall sports] safely – at Villa Maria Academy we’ve been limiting the number of kids on the [volleyball] court, players are wearing their masks while playing and we are doing COVID surveys to make sure the kids are safe. When can we be trusted with this? The statistics show that kids have low risk. If kids are compromised [regarding COVID risk] or if they have families members that are vulnerable, the parents can make that tough decision and hold them out [of athletics] if need be.”
“This is a very challenging situation,” said Harriton girls’ volleyball coach Simon Telfer. “My heart breaks for my seniors and the seniors of the other schools, we’d all love to be competing. However, we also want everyone to remain healthy and safe. Volleyball being indoors and using student athletes as scorers and line judges makes it impossible to compete under the current guidelines with a 25 person limit in the gym. Hopefully a shift in start dates for all seasons will allow some semblance of a fall sports season.”
Other high school coaches from around Chester County also expressed their reactions to the PIAA announcement:
Justin DiPietropaolo, Downingtown West girls’ tennis coach – “I’m glad that we still have a glimmer of hope. We’re going to continue to train with voluntary workouts and make sure our players are prepared if the season happens.”
Peter Uhlman, Bishop Shanahan boys’ cross country coach – “As both a coach and a parent of PIAA athletes, I think tremendous credit needs to go to school administrators all over the state who, with the guidance and support of the PIAA, are working around the clock in an attempt to develop a safe environment for high school athletics to continue. As a coach and a parent, I feel tremendous empathy for the student-athletes caught up in this situation; most I talk to show the maturity to understand there are no simple answers. I support the PIAA’s call for a collaborative and multi-jurisdictional approach to a solution and hope the Governor, Department(s) of Health and Education and the Legislature take them up on their offer. Finally, we offer our prayers of encouragement and support to everyone involved – may they be granted both courage and wisdom in these unprecedented times.”
Harry Blitzberger, West Chester Rustin girls’ volleyball coach – “While I’m disappointed the season has been delayed, I believe this is a positive sign the PIAA values the important role athletics can play as a stress reducer and coping mechanism for our young adults in uncertain times.”
Greta Neff, West Chester Henderson girls’ volleyball coach – “I am concerned about the fall season… I hope that the governing bodies can come up with a safe way for kids to interact on the athletic fields. Athletics plays such an important role in the lives of our student athletes (way more than just socializing), it would be a tough pill to swallow if the seasons were canceled. I believe that giving kids something to work for and look forward to each day is very important.”
Greg Ashman, Bishop Shanahan girls’ volleyball coach – “I’m very happy that the PIAA didn’t cancel fall sports. I believe that it is very important for the high school kids to be able to play. The values that they learn playing sports are important for building well-rounded adults.
It’s a very difficult decision weighing all the concerns and safety during these times, but I think that the PIAA has done a good job putting safeguards in place, and I know that our school is taking these precautions very seriously and mandating that these are followed.”
Todd Lorback, West Chester East golf coach – “My reaction is disappointment that the PIAA and the Wolf administration clearly did not coordinate on the subject and so are creating confusion by publicly announcing different approaches to the matter of fall sports proceeding with their seasons. As a result it is once again left to local officials and school administrators to make very difficult decisions based on mixed signals coming from federal and state authorities.
“Included in those difficult decisions are matters like realistic distancing strategies, rescheduling, costs, and whether to differentiate among the various fall sports as to who can safely play and who may not be able to.
“It is my hope, shared by most I’m sure, that we do not have to deliver more COVID-19 related disappointment to the kids who so much want a resumption of their normal school activities like sports.
“We all are looking for authentic leadership in this crisis beyond passing the tough calls down to the most local officials who can’t count on making informed decisions based on clear and consistent information coming from higher ‘authorities.’ The calendar and clock require we get some decisive direction from the state and PIAA so we know whether the season needs to be canceled or can safely get under way.”