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Momentum building as most Ches-Mont schools begin fall sports practice

West Chester East field hockey coach Jessica Rice leads her team in workouts last week. The Vikings are planning to play this fall, with field hockey games beginning as soon as the week of October 5. (PETE BANNAN – MNG)

In the last week, momentum has been building in the Ches-Mont league to end the postponement of the 2020 fall sports season that was initially derailed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Unionville school board voted, 9-0, and Great Valley voted, 6-3, to join seven other schools that have already decided to play sports this fall.

That means the list of schools suiting up has reached nine: all three West Chester schools, Downingtown East and West, Avon Grove, Sun Valley, Great Valley and Unionville.

Four remain undecided: Coatesville, Kennett, Oxford, and Bishop Shanahan.

According to Coatesville head football coach Matt Ortega, his district’s school board will make an official determination at its meeting on Tuesday at the latest.

“I hope we can get games for the kids,” Ortega said. “That’s always been the hope. That’s why we have been working out since July. Hopefully it becomes a reality.

“We’re waiting until the school board makes the decision.”

Until it happens, the Raiders’ football squad will continue with voluntary workouts.

“I just know that all of the schools of the Ches-Mont have seen the NFL and (major) college football pull it off and 85 percent of the state of Pennsylvania is playing,” Ortega added.

“But when you are dealing with something that impacts health, I don’t think that will sway our school board. They will do what they feel is best for our school district.”

Over the weekend, Oxford sent out a mass Tweet to notify families that mandatory practices for all fall sports would begin on Monday, which upped the proposed start date by a week. It may be an indication that Oxford is preparing the way for a return to competition, but the school’s athletic director, Mike Price, said the decision will be made during an emergency session of the Oxford School Board on Thursday.

“I can’t speculate one way or the other which way this is going to go,” Price said.

The Unionville School Board initially voted 5-4 to move forward with fall sports on Aug. 3, but about three weeks later the Ches-Mont announced that the season would be postponed. It was a direct response to a Chester County Health Department recommendation that all high school sports should be canceled until at least 2021.

But the landscape changed when the CCHD removed its recommendation in an updated report on Sept. 14.  

“That was pivotal for Unionville and many other Ches-Mont schools,” said Unionville Athletic Director Pat Crater.

“The landscape has changed since Aug. 3rd. It’s been a roller coaster ride,” he added.

“Now we are at a point where there are (opposing) teams to play against.”

The day after the CCHD altered its recommendation, the Ches-Mont athletic directors reportedly met to review a health and safety plan initially developed by Unionville’s head athletic trainer, Joe Vogler. The plan was quickly approved.

“The (health department) recommendation and a uniform safety plan for everybody to follow were two key hurdles to clear,” Price said.

Among many standards and protocols, the plan calls for masks to be worn during volleyball matches, for instance. But the underpinnings set statistical thresholds to determine whether athletics can or can’t be played this fall.

Pa. Prep Live has reviewed the metrics for determining safe competition based on the CCHD guidelines. If COVID-19 infection rates are less than 80 per 100,000 in Chester County, and if less than 10% of tests in the county are positive, athletic competitions will be allowed. If either of those baselines is not achieved, competition will be halted.

“As athletic directors over the last few months, we chose to keep working so we would be ready when the time came,” Crater said.

“We want to play and we are committed that we can do it safely.”

It is important to note that many high school athletes have been competing in private camps, clinics and leagues throughout the summer and into the fall season. According to Crater, for example, not long after the Ches-Mont initially announced the postponement of fall sports, United Sports in West Bradford moved forward with plans to start a quasi-Ches-Mont soccer league. The head boys’ soccer coach at Downingtown West, John Hatt, is also the chief operating officer at United Sports.

“We know that sports are happening, whether people like it or not,” Crater said. “But at Unionville, we are not lowering our standard just because everybody else is doing it.

“We believe we can offer sports at a higher level of safety than at other camps, clinics and leagues.”

The Ches-Mont will check weekly to make sure the metrics in the county are in line in order to continue playing sports this fall.    

Schools that are playing have discussed beginning golf competitions as soon as this week, with girls tennis next week and all other sports competitions the week of Oct. 5. Sources tell Pa. Prep Live that Friday, Oct. 9 would be the earliest Ches-Mont teams could possibly play football games.

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