In what was probably one of the most anticipated announcements in Pennsylvania high school sports history, the state’s governing body voted Wednesday in favor of moving forward with plans to play sports this fall season.
In the throes of a global pandemic, and with heat acclimatization set to begin in less than two weeks, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) Board of Directors voted 29-3 in favor of ‘Return to Competition’ guidelines, outlined in a two dozen-plus page plan.
“We’ve really been working at this because we feel it is vitally important to give our students every opportunity to be student-athletes,” said PIAA Executive Director Robert Lombardi. “We are advocates for them. Educational-based athletics are vital to growth, health and development of student-athletes and their ultimate success.
“There are a lot of what-ifs. But the biggest what-if is this: what if we don’t try? If we don’t try to get something out of the (fall) season for students, I think we are failing them. We need to do our darnedest to help them become successful.”
Board members representing the Pennsylvania Principals Association and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association were two of the three dissenting votes.
It’s important to note that the fate for high school athletics for 10-PIAA sanctioned fall sports ultimately rests with local school districts and state government – principally Governor Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Rachel Levine.
“We are hopeful that we can work together and use metrics to see if we can give these students an opportunity to play,” Lombardi said.
“We will do what we’ve done from the start and work cooperatively with the Department of Education, the Department of Health, the Governor’s Office – they make the determination whether schools play. And we will adhere to that.”
The news was received across Chester County with cautious optimism, at least from several head coaches who are directly affected — like Oxford football mentor Mike Means.
“My guys and our coaching staff are thrilled,” he said. “One of the biggest struggles through all of this was not knowing. Now, we can get started and get ready for what’s next. There is still a lot of uncertainty, but this is a huge step.”
The PIAA approved a fall sports schedule to begin as already outlined, but also offered two options to start at a later date with alternate and hybrid plans. In football, for example, the first date contest is set for Aug. 28, but the alternate plan has a first date of Sept. 18. The hybrid plan starts no later than Oct. 5 for all sports.
“I’m happy it now looks like we are going to have a season, but it is a moving target right. We are taking it week-by-week,” said Villa Maria field hockey coach Katie Evans.
“We are very excited,” added Downingtown West girls soccer coach Katelyn Phillips. “It’s such an uncertain time, but our players are all back with their club teams and now they have the hope that they will have some type of (high school) season this fall.”
In addition to the regular schedule for postseason tournaments, the PIAA has a plan for a reduced format for its playoffs in all fall sports except golf and cross country. If instituted, the scaled-back plan calls for a state tournament of only league champions.
And because the state is limiting outdoor gatherings of 250 or more people, it is highly unlikely that any fans will be allowed at any high school athletic events in person.
“It seems to be out of our hands right now,” Lombardi said. “We are anticipating, in most instances, of having no spectators.”
The PIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Steering Committee recommended, for example, that a single positive COVID-19 test by a student-athlete would require the entire team to quarantine for 14 days, and the Board of Directors approved the move unanimously. The committee also released detailed sports-specific protocols that address issues like masks, distancing, equipment restrictions and what to do if an athlete has a temperature of 100.4 or higher.
“I love field hockey and sports, so part of me is happy we are playing and that the PIAA thinks it is safe enough to proceed,” Evans said. “But ultimately, at Villa Maria, we are adamant about keeping the girls safe, so we will be using our best judgment to decide what is the safest route to take.
“Field hockey is an easier sport to make sure everyone is socially distancing, and we have our own protocols where the coaches will all be in masks, the girls won’t be able to pick up equipment, and the PIAA will come out with sports-specific direction as well.”
As it stands now, heat acclimation week starts on Aug. 10, and practices can commence on Aug. 17. Golf and girls tennis will be allowed to begin competing on Aug. 20 and 24, respectively. The rest — field hockey, soccer, cross country, volleyball and water polo – can start Sept. 4.
Under the alternate plan, all sports other than football would get underway on Sept. 14.
“The last six months have been about nothing but being flexible,” Means pointed out. “The only thing we can get ready for is what is in front of us, so we are planning to come back on August 10th. If that gets moved back, then it gets pushed back. If that changes, we will change along with it.”
At Downingtown West, the athletic department has been offering Zoom agility workouts, as well as individual training sessions, all in preparation for a season that may, or may not, take place. There is, of course, the scenario where a season starts but is postponed or eventually cancelled, which is what happened to the tail end of the winter season and all of the spring season in 2020.
“From what I am getting from our parents and athletes, they are ready even with the restrictions to do whatever they can,” Phillips said.
“We are ready for the unexpected,” Evans added. “We will keep moving forward until we get more direction, and keep planning as if there will be a season and keep using our best judgment to keep everybody safe.
“I think if we have a season, the teams that can adapt best to this uncertain period right now, they will be the ones that will succeed.”
As it pertains to the potential 14-day team quarantine, Lombardi explained that the PIAA is giving more flexibility to schools to work cooperatively on scheduling complications, but that is just for the regular season.
“However, if it is a district game and a team cannot play, it would be a forfeit because of advancement,” he said.
Most coaches understand that as they move forward with plans to practice and compete this fall, there will be many who disagree with the PIAA guidelines, and some parents and players who decide not to participate.
“I haven’t seen it in my community yet with my parents and players,” Means said. “They have been very positive about wanting to have a season.
“There is absolutely going to be push-back, but no matter what (the PIAA does), it will be the wrong decision for like half of the people. And usually the ones who disagree are more vocal than the ones that agree. I’m not worried about that.
“If a kid is in a compromised position, and it’s in the best interest of his family not to play, then that’s obviously the direction we would go with that family and that kid.”
The next PIAA Board of Directors meeting is slated for Aug. 26, and Lombardi said that adjustments to the plan could take place in accordance with the medical recommendations at that time.
“This at least gives our kids a little bit of hope,” Phillips said. “And with the majority of fall sports taking place outdoors, it’s kind of an advantage because the restrictions aren’t as strict.
“There might be a shortened, or a hybrid, but they just want to have something to remember from this season.”