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Main Line coaches react to fall postponements

When Joe Augustine accepted the job as the new head coach of the Lower Merion High School football squad last February, he was looking forward to the challenge of building a program that hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1992.

More specifically, Augustine was really looking forward to Friday, Aug. 28, when his Lower Merion squad would be kicking off its 2020 campaign in the season opener.

Instead, on Aug. 28, the Central League issued a statement postponing the 2020 fall sports season, which includes Lower Merion football.

“I’m disappointed and heartbroken to say the least and for the news to come on the same day we were supposed to be kicking off our first game of the year made it even harder,” said Augustine. “Everyone in our program has been so dedicated, made many sacrifices just to participate in workouts and be a part of this team over past months, since we were allowed to start workouts.

“I am not sure what the future holds as far as games but we are going to continue practicing, working hard and building so that, when the time comes, we are ready to go. Our kids have a passion to play like I’ve never seen here before and we know we will get through this together as a family.”

The statement released by the Central League Aug. 28 read as follows:

“The Central League, in concert with our district leadership teams, will be taking its direction from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Chester and Montgomery County Health Departments, and the Governor’s office by postponing the start of athletic competitions.

“The Central League will stay in constant contact with the PIAA to work collaboratively and advocate on creating alternative solutions for our student athletes in order for them to participate in interscholastic competitions. It is our hope the PIAA will provide the Central League with alternative solutions, which we will communicate to our communities in the near future as more guidance is brought forth from the PIAA and the Health Departments. These solutions could include shortened, competitive schedules for each athletic season beginning in January.

“The Central League realizes the critical importance of physical activity for our students’ emotional, psychological, social well being, and mental health. With this in mind, we strongly suggest that school districts continue their voluntary off-season workouts in accordance with their School Board approved health and safety plans.”

While this statement didn’t eliminate the possibility of playing fall sports before Jan. 1, 2021, some Main Line coaches were doubtful it could happen.

“I very much doubt we can do any games in 2020,” said Harriton boys’ soccer head coach Biff Sturla. “How would we transport them there? Buses are a haven for viruses.

“I have heard we might do seven-week seasons in 2021 (winter sports, then fall, then spring).  Not ideal but I’d like the boys to have something.

“The big issue for soccer – and only soccer – is that the vast majority of Harriton players and Lower Merion players are in the middle of a very busy clubs season (Lower Merion Soccer Club and other clubs) and will be busy many days a week with training, league games, state cup games.  Do we tell a player to prioritize on playing high school or club?  Remember that club is where players get recruited in soccer, not high school. It definitely will put the players in a tough spot.”

Sturla noted that he is caught in the middle as both President of the Lower Merion Soccer Club (which includes 54 travel teams) and boys’ soccer head coach at Harriton.

“ Nico Severini’s boys at Lower Merion are top notch players but are also playing very high level club soccer, as are many of my players,” said Sturla. “It’s the same with many other high schools in the area. Kids will be caught in a big bind if we go to the spring.  Football won’t have that problem.”

Harriton girls’ soccer head coach Jeff Rhodes said, “I spoke with the team yesterday [Aug. 31]. Although bummed, they understand and appreciate the opportunity to train in the meantime. They also appreciate that the season has not been canceled, just pushed back for now.We are continuing off-season sessions two times per week until Oct. 2. However, our competition schedule has been pushed to March/April.”

On Aug. 26, the Inter-Ac announced that it was suspending all athletic competition through Dec. 31.

Episcopal Academy athletic director and head football coach Todd Fairlie said, “The league is committed to exploring all scenarios to give our students the best chance to have athletic seasons. Given the recommendations given for school and athletics the league decided it is best to plan for a three-season scenario starting in January.

“We will continue to re-evaluate the situation and adjust when needed to get the kids back to playing. We will be able to offer programming this fall for the kids and will monitor what is safe to do. I did meet with our [EA football] players [Aug. 26], obviously it was disappointing for them. They asked some really good questions and I thought it was productive. I cannot imagine how hard this is for them; it seems like a lot of things are allowed to go on around us but for them to be kept out of school and sports while other things carry on seems unfair.”

Episcopal Academy girls tennis coach Whit Powell said, “Obviously I’m disappointed for the girls that they can’t have a season but safety has to come first. I have spoken to my team frequently and, while [they are] definitely upset, they understand that it was a league wide decision for all sports. 

“I’m interested how the seven-week model will work because girls’ tennis in late February and early March will be tricky for sure. We’ll have to be creative for sure.”

Malvern Prep cross country coach Mike Koenig said, “We are definitely sad about the [postponement]. We felt like we had a pretty good plan in place to hold meets safely….  We can start unofficial team practices on Sept. 14 but they would be optional.  I am currently trying to think up opportunities within our campus for guys to get some racing times under their belts, especially for juniors and seniors who might be getting recruited.”

Malvern Prep water polo coach Jay Schiller noted, “Once we complete the ‘quiet’ period while schools open, it will be treated as if we were in the summer. We will be in the pool two times per week for conditioning and skill development and we will also lift in our strength center on Wednesdays after school. 

“I feel terrible for all of our kids regardless of sport.  This generation of graduates (2020 and 2021) are being cheated out of so many opportunities due to this pandemic and this is just one more hit they are taking.” 

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