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PAC’s Pope John Paul II, Upper Merion excited for fall sports return

Friday marked the return to competition in the Pioneer Athletic Conference in more ways than one.

The PAC fall sports season kicked off Sept. 25 at the same time as league member schools Pope John Paul II and Upper Merion were announcing their intention to get back on the field.

After previously opting out of the fall season amid COVID-19 pandemic precautions, PJP and Upper Merion are opting back in.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced Friday afternoon that its 17 high schools – 15 Philadelphia Catholic League schools plus PJP and the Ches-Mont’s Bishop Shanahan – were eligible to compete in fall sports, reversing an Aug. 24 decision that saw the schools opt out of fall competition.

“Since the late August announcement, our school administrators have worked closely with senior leadership from the Office of Catholic Education and Faith in the Future to meticulously study pandemic metrics, guidelines, and school COVID profiles as part of our continuous assessment process. After carefully reviewing all possible factors, including the successful opening of our schools, we believe the environment has changed for the better over the past month,” said Sister Maureen L. McDermott, Superintendent of Secondary Schools, in a press release.

Hours later, Upper Merion stated its intention to resume participation in fall sports.

“Viking Nation, we will be officially starting Fall Sports on Monday, September 28th as we believe at this point this is our best option going forward,” wrote Upper Merion Superintendent Dr. John Toleno on Twitter.

The Upper Merion decision is pending school board approval. The UM board’s next scheduled meeting is Oct. 5.

A cascade of leagues and schools returning to fall sports began last week, largely triggered by the Chester County Department of Health softening the language of its recommendation of no youth sports until 2021, a recommendation in line with the Pa. Dept. of Health. The rewording set off a series of events that saw the Central and Ches-Mont leagues announce intentions to compete.

Pottsgrove moved to allow its football team to resume play on Tuesday. Three days later, the Catholic League and affiliate schools like PJP returned along with Upper Merion.

“We’re thrilled that our kids are going to have a chance to compete this fall,” said PJP Athletic Director Joe Trainer. “Hopefully we can move forward and have this set the tone for a good fall into the winter and go the whole year.”

Trainer feels confident in the Archdiocese’s measured approach to resuming.

“Just as the decision to not play isn’t done in haste, the decision to reenter is equally deliberate,” Trainer said.

Senior quarterback/safety Rocco DiRico and other members of the Pope John Paul II football team received the news from head coach Rory Graver, who kept his team on its toes.

“We have two practice groups and our group was practicing and Coach Graver came up to us and said, ‘Bad news. We’re playing this fall.’ It caught us all off guard,” DiRico said. “Everyone was really excited. It came as a surprise. We’re happy to now be out there and play some games.”

The Golden Panthers football have practiced in two groups due to the school following a hybrid reopening plan, ironically one of a very short list of schools in the area offering in-person instruction.

Other student-athletes at PJP caught word on social media but the excitement level was the same.

“I was out to dinner with my friends when somebody texted me to look at Twitter: ‘We’re going back to play,’” said senior boys soccer player Brett McMenamin. “We all, most of them play soccer, were really excited. I’ve been texting the guys since last night, and we can’t wait to get back out on the field.”

Although PJP’s programs were holding workouts, they lacked an edge with no games to plan for.

“It definitely was harder to focus at practice and stay motivated because we didn’t know if we were going to play,” McMenamin said. “It’s hard to stay motivated to do anything when you’re not sure what the purpose is.”

DiRico, a student at PJP since his sophomore year, was faced with the situation of friends from Spring-Ford, the school district he resides in, gearing up for the season.

“I’m friends with all the guys (at Spring-Ford) still, they’re all still my best friends,” said DiRico, an All-Area second team safety last year. “They didn’t brag, but they were all excited and ecstatic that they were having a season. Before, I wasn’t going to have one so I was a little down about it.

“It was pretty disappointing that they were playing and we weren’t, but now we’re playing.”

The Pioneer Athletic Conference now stands at nine all-sport participants – Boyertown, Methacton, Owen J. Roberts, Perkiomen Valley, Pope John Paul II, Pottsgrove, Spring-Ford, Upper Merion and Upper Perkiomen. Phoenixville remains a partial participant with only golf and tennis while Pottstown and Norristown have maintained their decision to suspend their fall seasons.

The reentry of Pottsgrove football, PJP and Upper Merion presents a unique circumstance with the Pioneer Athletic Conference schedule solidified among the schools that were ready to compete beginning Friday. The late entrants will have the unique challenge of trying to build a schedule without the benefit of a normal league structure.

“Our league of ADs is an unbelievable group of leaders and schedules have been made very early in advance for the six schools that were going, along with the partial schools that were going. That took about five weeks to get done,” Trainer said.

“Right now we’re assessing what opportunities we’re going to have. We don’t expect them (the PAC) to redo schedules, but hopefully there are enough open dates in there for teams. We have a lot of great rivalries within the PAC.”

While PJP will prioritize finding games against its traditional PAC opponents, Trainer acknowledged the potential of needing to seek out games against Catholic League members or other non-league schools.

The PIAA approved on Wednesday a motion from District 1 chairman Dr. Michael Barber that allows schools to schedule games until Nov. 28 even in the event of elimination from postseason, which will give the recent opt-ins more time to conduct a season.

Trainer anticipates PJP teams will be able to begin games the week of Oct. 6 with football possibly having its opener Oct. 9 or 10. The reigning District 1-3A football champions have been holding official practices for two weeks, which aids returning in two weeks. The District 1 football playoffs are expected to begin Nov. 6, which would potentially allow four games prior to a postseason return.

DiRico will be looking to replace All-Area first team quarterback Kamal Gray, now at Temple, and trying to lead the Golden Panthers to build on the success of last year’s 10-3 campaign.

“We lost a lot of studs from last year and that’s what everyone is saying, that it’s going to be back to the old PJP, but that’s just more motivating to us,” DiRico said. “We just want to go out there and play. We have a lot of good guys this year. We’re starting to gel more.”

The return of athletic competition expects to be a jolt of energy to Pope John Paul II High School.

“It was very flat, just a different academic environment,” Trainer said. “Sixty percent of our students are involved with athletics and when you’re not doing that … the voluntary workouts can only go so far. Most of our coaches were engaging the athletes after school a couple days a week but when there’s no season on the horizon it is tough to stay motivated. But there was hope. (As other leagues and schools opted back in) the energy and momentum in our parents and students showed people were eager and motivated and demonstrative about us getting back involved.

“Fortunately for all of us, it happened.”

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