High School student-athletes, parents and coaches in Chester County will have to wait at least one more day to receive a definitive decision on whether the 2020 fall season is going to take place in the midst of a global pandemic.
Or things could continue to remain in limbo as state officials and the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) take turns addressing the issue with ambiguous statements, seemingly waiting for the other to make the ultimate call.
During a Thursday press conference, when asked about the fate of the upcoming season, Gov. Tom Wolf said that all high school sports should be pushed back to the 2021 calendar year.
“The guidance is that we ought to avoid any congregate settings,” he said. “And that means anything that brings people together is going to help that virus get us and we ought to do everything we can to defeat that virus. So any time we get together for any reason, that’s a problem because it makes it easier for that virus to spread.”
A later joint press release from the state’s Department of Health and Department of Education said that the Wolf administration is providing a strong recommendation, but not an order or mandate, and that school administrators and locally elected school boards should make the decisions on sports.
It prompted the PIAA Board of Directors to issue the following statement: “Today, Governor Wolf issued a statement of strongly recommending no interscholastic and recreational sports until Jan. 1st. We are tremendously disappointed in this decision. Our member schools have worked diligently to develop health and safety plans to allow students the safe return to interscholastic athletics.”
“The PIAA Board of Directors will meet (Friday) afternoon to review this action. PIAA will have an official statement (then).”
On July 29, the PIAA approved a fall sports schedule to begin on time, but also offered two options to start at a later date with alternate and hybrid plans. Five days later, the Ches-Mont league announced that the start of the fall season would be pushed back from Aug. 28 to Sept. 25, but that each school in the league would have an opportunity to approve the plan.
Another local conference, the Central League (Conestoga), also recently announced plans to delay the start of the season by several weeks.
“It’s all extremely frustrating,” said Unionville girls’ soccer coach Joe Ratasiewicz. “Everything’s in limbo.
“Unionville chose to go with a hybrid of virtual and in-person classes this fall. But it’s different with athletics because most of the sports are outdoors where you can keep distances and you have enough coaches, administrators and training staff to monitor it.
“It seems to me that we should be able to put something together.”
Tensions now appear to be building between state officials and the PIAA. In a statement by Garry Cathell, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Football Coaches Association (PSFCA), he said that the PIAA was given no prior notice of Wolf’s recommendation.
“If all sports are cancelled, the PSFCA will immediately begin conversations to have spring football,” Cathell added in the statement.
“That’s the problem with leadership today, no one wants to stick their neck out and make the decision for the group, they want to pass the buck and point fingers,” added Coatesville head football coach Matt Ortega.
“I think that is what is going on here. All we want is some guidance and a decision.”
When asked if Wolf’s recommendation could signal the end of hopes to compete this fall, Downingtown West tennis coach Justin DePietropaolo said: “I can’t give you a definitive answer. I hope that (the state officials and the PIAA) work together and we can come to an agreement.
“My gut feeling is that they will do what is best for all of the athletes.”
DePietropaolo has been running summer tennis camps in Chester and Delaware counties for the past eight weeks, and believes that protocols adopted through the United States Tennis Association have been successful so far.
“I’ve been working with a lot of kids and we haven’t had any issues,” he said. “Tennis is one of the sports, like cross country and golf, where you can social distance. The tennis community has had some pretty good protocols in place for a while.”
When asked about his gut feeling for the prospects of fall action, Ratasiewicz said that he believes Unionville will be fielding a girls’ soccer team in 2020. But he sees some potential scheduling challenges.
“The Ches-Mont Athletic Directors chose to play league games only, but the problem is what if only half of our league teams are playing?” he said. “I don’t see a problem with crossing over and playing schools from, say, the Central League.”
Another option that has been bandied about among administrators and coaches is the prospects of a piecemeal approach. The idea is that fall sports that are inherently easier to self-distance — like tennis, golf and cross country — would move forward as planned, while others like football or indoor volleyball take a more cautious path. “It would depend on the area you live in,” Ratasiewicz explained. “If you have high percentage of positive cases, you may want to limit it to golf and tennis. If it is a medium range — whatever that may be — you could extend it to soccer and field hockey. And if you are in a pretty clean area, it seems to me that you should be able to do most sports with the safeguards that a required per sport.”
Ortega has heard some of those ideas, but just like the coronavirus itself, there are a lot of questions that are difficult to answer right now.
“What we thought we knew about the virus two months ago is different than what we know now,” he said. “That’s the perplexing thing about this.
“As a football coach, it’s hard for me to say what the outcome would be if we played, but I do know that all of the school districts have done a good job of formulating plans in such a short time period.
“For the last month in a half, we’ve kept it pretty safe but it still hasn’t involved the full-contact piece, which we don’t know how that would look.”
There are also other ideas, like moving all fall sports to the spring, which may end up being the last resort.
“There have been several states that have successfully coordinated that, and I think it can be done,” Ratasiewicz said.
It is all, undoubtedly, a complex challenge to maneuver through, and the only guarantee is that there will be plenty of public push back when the dust settles.
“Last spring was cancelled and if you cancel the fall, the psyche of these kids really starts to be affected,” Ratasiewicz said.
“From the start, it’s been a roller coaster,” Ortega added. “There are days where you feel confident and there are days, like (Thursday), where you get brought back down.”
Ortega is not only a coach but also a parent of a student-athlete. His son, Tommy, is a rising junior at Coatesville who lost his sophomore lacrosse season last spring, and is now faced with an uncertain future in football.
“I can’t imagine what the players are going through, especially the seniors,” he said. “It’s been rough because it’s been very cloudy from the start. I really felt we could have better leadership from day one because things never seemed aligned between the governor and the PIAA.
“I hope it gets resolved soon so that everybody knows what we are dealing with and not have it keep playing out and strung along.”