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HERTZOG: Game day only a fraction of challenges endured in unforgettable fall

Pope John Paul II head coach Rory Graver speaks to his team after winning the District 1/12 Class 3A championship in 2019. (Owen McCue - MediaNews Group)
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Very few know the challenges of playing football in a pandemic quite like Rory Graver.

Like most coaches, the Pope John Paul II seventh-year head coach spent the offseason and summer leading his players via Zoom video conferences. Like most, he waited and waded the waters of the decision making on whether a season would take place in August and September.

At Pope John Paul II, despite being the only Pioneer Athletic Conference school to begin the school year with a hybrid learning plan and having partial in-school instruction, it was one of six PAC schools to have its school leadership suspend athletic competition.

For a month, beginning Aug. 24 when the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced that ‘our high schools will opt out of participation in interscholastic competition for the fall 2020 season’, the Golden Panthers came to terms with a disappointing reality.

A month later, on Sept. 25, the same day as the six non-delayed PAC programs were preparing for their season openers, PJP got its own opening: the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced a resumption of interscholastic competition for its 17 member schools.

Following its three-week mandatory preseason, Pope John Paul II was scheduled to play at Pottsgrove, the PAC Frontier Division’s top two programs in recent years, in its opening game on Oct. 9.

Except a day earlier, something wasn’t right while Graver ate breakfast.

“It was on a Thursday, and I lost my taste and smell when I was eating my breakfast and it was a little alarming,” said Graver, who is a health and physical education teacher at PJP.

He went to get tested for COVID-19 and later learned it was positive.

“Obviously the most important thing is the health and safety of everyone around me. I start thinking about my family. I have three young boys, my wife, my parents and my wife’s parents. That’s where my thoughts first went,” he said. “Once we found that everyone was safe there, it was obviously very disappointing we weren’t going to be able to play the game that day. I beat myself up for a little bit.”

To this day Graver is unaware where he came in contact with the virus that has affected all parts of life in the United States since March. That fact makes life in the COVID-19 era all the more confounding. And challenging to compete in athletics.

“At the end of the day you have to realize it’s really no one’s fault. We’re trying to do this thing in the middle of a pandemic and it’s tough to do. We knew that there was a chance something like this would occur,” Graver said. “I was fortunate because I didn’t really have any symptoms and no one around me on the football team or in school or my family tested positive.

“Our program was very safe with everything and very strict on the mask wearing and social distancing. In my family, we have a three-month-old so we were very careful. It’s very difficult.”

The degrees of difficulty surrounding everything involved with athletic participation have never been higher than in 2020.

Health and safety protocols of mask wearing, social distancing, sanitization, group size limits were integral to the success of the fall sports season. They led to a greater success rate than would have seemed likely back in August.

The Pioneer Athletic Conference ultimately had 11 schools compete in football after the six original participants (Boyertown, Methacton, Owen J. Roberts, Perkiomen Valley, Spring-Ford, Upper Perkiomen) were joined by October returners Phoenixville, Pope John Paul II, Pottsgrove, Pottstown and Upper Merion.

Three total games involving PAC teams were cancelled as a result of COVID-19 precautions. Unfortunately for Pope John Paul II, it was involved in all three.

Along with the season-opening postponement, Cardinal O’Hara was forced to cancel on PJP’s Senior Day on Nov. 7; a week later, a positive case in the PJP program forced a cancellation of the rescheduled meeting against Pottsgrove, ending the season for both teams.

Pope John Paul II’s football season was limited to three games, the fewest of any area team.

The Golden Panthers went 3-0 with wins over Conwell-Egan (32-19 on Oct. 17), Upper Merion (50-14 on Oct. 23) and an attention-grabbing 34-22 victory over traditional PAC power Perkiomen Valley on Oct. 30. PJP’s success went against the grain compared to other schools that had their seasons suspended.

Having already known letdown, the Falcons and Golden Panthers were unfortunately equipped to handle the news of their lost finale.

“They handled it like the good young men that they are, and with the understanding that you have to live in the moment and enjoy everyday,” said Pottsgrove head coach Bill Hawthorne. “Enjoy every practice with your teammates and friends because it can be taken away from you tomorrow.”

“From the get-go, we told them we have to have the mindset of controlling what we can control, and a lot of things with this are out of our control. They really handled it with maturity,” Graver said. “Obviously it’s a disappointment but I’ve been really proud of how they handled it. I give the high school kids a ton of credit for how mature they’ve been.”

Competing in games is meant to be the end game of preparation that takes place in the weight room, practice field and in team building, all facets that were stunted in 2020.

Pottsgrove head coach Hawthorne, whose Falcons finished 2-2, felt the toll of those missed opportunities.

“In football and in any athletic endeavor, you don’t just go out and do it these days with all the time and effort they put into it,” said Hawthorne. “There’s a disconnect with doing things over Zoom. You can show kids plays and fundamental techniques, but it’s about reps, reps, reps and body movement, muscle memory and it’s the interaction of players amongst players as much as anything.

“Football isn’t all about going out on the field, it’s about being part of a community, being part of a brotherhood. It’s trusting the person next to you and knowing he’s going to do his job and you’re going to do yours. That’s the thing we couldn’t create this past offseason.”

Pottsgrove head coach Bill Hawthorne, right, and Perkiomen Valley head coach Rob Heist shake hands after PV’s win in the PAC championship game in 2018. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

Between the isolation of virtual schooling and the letdown of the season being suspended, motivation was damaged for Pottsgrove.

“When things were taken away, to get them fully invested in anything was painful to see because they were just so disengaged,” Hawthorne said.” I think that’s something for us in the coaching world to address, how to get them engaged and getting a sense of normalcy before you can even get into the normal aspects of athletics.”

Weight room access was a major missing piece, and based on the volume and frequency of injuries in the shortened season it was at least a contributing factor to players’ ability to withstand the physical toll of football.

“We haven’t been in the weight room at all since March 11th,” said Graver. “To be a good football team everyone knows you need to have a strong weight program. That’s been one of the biggest changes in our program is that we’ve had guys committed to that. I give our guys a ton of credit because so much of it was on their own.”

“There are a lot of fundamentals and techniques that we stress in our program that we weren’t able to put the emphasis we usually do on because we just didn’t have the allotted amount of time to do so,” said Hawthorne. “I really believe our offseason and our lack of ability to lift was the cause of why we were marred by injuries.”

The weight room disparity was a microcosm of the varied terms for PAC schools. The schools that started preseason Sept. 7 were able to have continuity for their offseason programs while others were at the opposite end of the spectrum, like at Pottstown where its sports shutdown ceased all group activities and use of school facilities.

The off-the-field team building exercises like community service and team events also affected the growth of teams this fall.

“Fundraisers, community service, all those things are team-oriented,” Hawthorne said. “You’re doing it as a team and doing it together for a common goal. That goal-setting process, getting to know one another, we weren’t able to do that for 9 months.”

Hawthorne lamented the lack of uniformity between schools in the league and hopes the individualized approach that decorated the fall can be shifted to a more league-wide vision for all future seasons affected by COVID-19.

“I’m happy that the Pottsgrove and all senior athletes in the area got to play at least some form of competition this season. To me, if we can do it the right way and we’re safe, I think yes, it’s worth it,” he said. “However, I think moving forward we need to be uniform in league policy. I hope we are all on the same page moving forward with when we can participate, how we can participate, how we can prepare in the offseason.”

Yet despite its shortcomings everyone involved was grateful to be able to compete, no matter the length of season. Because, amid the isolation and restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clearer than ever that even more than athletics, people crave togetherness.

“Even though we only got three games, six weeks of practice, we still got that time together and we still developed relationships with each other,” Graver said. “In the short-term right now, it’s tough, but in the long term we’ll be able to look back and be thankful for the time that we had together.”

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