Basketball, wrestling and other high school winter sports seasons will start Friday, just as planned.
Despite all of the noise surrounding PIAA sports in recent weeks, and despite concerns over the growing spread of COVID-19, Pennsylvania’s high school athletics governing body gave an all-clear signal Wednesday to the new season and relaxed some measures that will allow its members to adapt to potential delays or shutdowns.
“The (PIAA) Board (of Directors) felt that starting early, with a 16-week season, provides every school with the most flexibility and lets them determine as much or as little competition as they want,” said Dr. Robert Lombardi, executive director of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association. “This (plan) gives (each school) the opportunity to decide what their community wants. I felt it was very wise.”
At this point, the only thing that could interrupt the start of the season is a move by Gov. Tom Wolf or the state Department of Health.
Many leagues in southeast Pa., including the Suburban One League, Pioneer Athletic Conference and Ches-Mont League, have already delayed their starts from this weekend, some beginning play in January with league-only competition.
The PIAA announced some major changes, including champions-only state tournaments, as was utilized in the fall when seasons were truncated but played to conclusion with championships in all sports.
The state basketball tournament, for example, will have at most 12 qualifiers per classification; some of the larger districts, such as Districts 1, 3 and 7, could see their champs open in the state quarterfinals. That would require only three victories for a championship, rather than five in the standard 32-team brackets.
“By reducing to champions only, it allows flexibility of how (each district) wants to organize their tournament to fit their need,” Lombardi said.
As it did in the fall, the PIAA will allow schools to schedule games through the conclusion of the state tournament, including those schools that make the playoffs and are eliminated.
Lombardi also said the state basketball tournament will begin about 10 to 12 days later than usual, allowing individual districts more time to organize full tournaments. In the fall, District 3 had to severely reduce its playoff fields, to four in most sports and classifications.
Lombardi called the moves “a stroke of genius” because they will allow maximum flexibility during a time filled with many unknowns and with some leagues, and some school districts, pushing the start of their seasons back until January.
Lombardi disagrees with that philosophy. He said the PIAA learned during the fall that the best approach is to start early and play as many games as possible as soon as possible.
“We have not seen data to say why (starting) Jan. 1 is better than Dec. 11, or why Jan. 15 is better than Feb. 1,” he said. “What we heard from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) is that after the new year, when we get into flu season, and with snow (and weather concerns), and travel restrictions (it will be more difficult to play games).”
Wednesday’s virtual meeting started ominously with State College School District superintendent Dr. Robert O’Donnell, who is not a member of the board of directors, urging the PIAA to delay the start of the season until Feb. 1. He cited COVID-19 concerns, saying there had been almost 50 positive cases in his district in the last 10 days and that hospitals in his region were struggling to keep up.
Later, it was learned that the Pennsylvania Principals Association sent a letter to the PIAA Wednesday requesting a delay to the start of the season.
The organization, which represents nearly 3,500 principals, did not suggest a start date.
“Instead of creating a statewide solution, PIAA is pushing the decision to the local level, requiring school boards to make decisions which may be diametrically opposed to decisions made by neighboring districts,” the letter stated. “Relinquishing responsibility for a statewide decision creates inequity across the state.”
Despite the request, the PIAA boldly moved forward and never entertained delaying the season. Such a proposition was never mentioned during the meeting.
The PIAA continued to leave the decision to wear masks up to individual school districts. Should a team reach the state tournament and refuse to play because of an opponent’s decision not to wear masks during competition, it will forfeit.
Game officials will not regulate the wearing of masks and will not stop a contest should an athlete lose his or her mask unless there is a physical safety concern.
The PIAA approved of a schedule for a return to play if a team is shut down for any length of time. If a team is unable to practice for seven consecutive days, it must have two days of practice before playing a contest. If it is shut down for 10 days, it will require three practice days. If it’s unable to practice for 14 or more days, it will require four days of practice.