Pick a boys’ or girls’ basketball team from any school left in the state tournament in any classification and the situation is similar.
The spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus has massively impacted the entire sports world from the NBA through the NCAA all the way down to the PIAA. For area teams, it also means school closures and at least a two-week wait to see if they get the opportunity to continue their state playoffs.
It’s an unprecedented scenario and a challenging one that every local squad still in the mix is trying to navigate.
“We’re in limbo, we’re waiting for the PIAA to decide whether the tournament can continue,” Dock Mennonite Academy boys’ basketball coach Mike Fergus said. “We have no practices scheduled. We had our winter sports banquet (Thursday) so I was able to talk to the parents about where we are but basically, we’re in a holding pattern right now.”
On Thursday, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf ordered all Montgomery County schools to close for two weeks and the entire state followed with a 10-day closure late Friday afternoon. The closure means teams can’t access their gyms to have practice, further complicating the situation.
For Chetlenham’s boys’ basketball team, things are even more confusing. The Panthers were slated to face Mt. Lebanon, the WPIAL runner-up, in a 6A boys second round game on Wednesday only for the Pittsburgh-area school to issue a statement saying it refused to play the game.
The PIAA ended up postponing that contest and another 6A game between Wilson and Lower Merion to Thursday before making the announcement on Thursday that all games were postponed for at minimum two weeks. For Cheltenham coach Patrick Fleury, it was a couple days of a lot of questions and rapidly changing information.
“It wasn’t easy to take,” Fleury said. “It’s like if you were bull-riding, you have the bull and it’s ready to go, you’re ready to go and you just stop. It was very unnatural for them, I think it would be unnatural for anybody. You mentally prepare your kids for a certain mindset and two times in a row, it’s rescinded and now talking to a couple of them, they’re not sure we’ll ever finish the tournament.”
Pennridge coach Dean Behrens, after his team fell to Roman Catholic on Wednesday night, said he was just glad to get one last chance to coach his team regardless of the outcome.
That’s something Fleury, for now, can’t say and his players may not have the opportunity to get that chance together.
“”I just wish we would have gotten that last game,” Fleury said. “The reality is, if this starts back up, you have to play those last two games of the second round. Well the teams that already played get extra time off and even when you play (the two outstanding games), it’s all going to be off-balance.”
The shutdown in Montgomery County extends past schools and to non-essential businesses, meaning gyms and other public facilities will be closed to athletes hoping to stay sharp during the layoff. Plymouth Whitemarsh girls’ basketball coach Dan Dougherty said he told his players to do whatever they could with what was available to them. The Colonials, in the quarterfinals for just the third time in program history, had a Friday game with Bethel Park in the 6A girls’ bracket postponed.
“We have a fantastic group of kids, they’re great friends with each other and I know they aren’t going to want to sit in their houses for two weeks,” Dougherty said. “Outside of one of our scout players, no one plays a spring sport so they were also getting ready for AAU. I have confidence they’ll stay sharp and stay in shape, so I’m just hoping for a lot of good weather.”
Fergus noted that challenge as well, especially with many of his players commuting to Dock from Philadelphia. The Pioneers have a 2A boys’ quarterfinal against defending state champion Math, Civics and Sciences now on hold.
“We’d be ready as soon as they said ‘play,’ that’s just how I feel about my kids,” Fergus said. “We had probably our best practice of the year (Thursday). We have a fitness level that’s out of sight so I’d say we could play in 24-hours’ notice, I just hope we get the nod.”
Fleury said he’s been in regular contact with most of his players since the announcement and they’re working on alternative measures to not lose too much momentum. Trying to find a moment of levity, the Panthers have taken to joking by the time they get back to playing, injured senior Zahree Harrison will be healthy enough to play but they’re taking it just as serious as everyone else.
“We’ll do something outside, take it back to the roots of what the game really is, find a blacktop and just play,” Fleury said. “It’s very weird, we can’t go to Arcadia, we can’t go anywhere. The whole state is closed for 10 days, so maybe we’re on an even playing field? I have no idea.”
Wood girls’ basketball coach Mike McDonald didn’t get a chance to address his entire team before the postponement but has been communicating with his captains. While he’s confident his players can get their touch and shooting back rather quickly, he stressed keeping cardio and fitness levels up for his athletes.
The Vikings were slated to play in the 5A girls’ quarterfinals against PCL rival Archbishop Carroll on Saturday.
“We’re just waiting, personally I don’t feel good about it with so many things already being canceled months in advance,” McDonald said. “I’m no medical expert by any means but it seems crazy we have so many things being canceled so far ahead. Right now, I’m glad the PIAA hasn’t canceled it officially so that gives us a little bit of hope.”
The common thought for all four coaches and likely all area teams still standing is what losing any remaining games would mean to their players and especially the seniors. Other teams still in the mix include Jenkintown (A girls), Lansdale Catholic (4A girls), Archbishop Wood (5A boys) and Methacton (6A boys).
While the situation is frustrating for all involved, Fleury, Fergus, Dougherty and McDonald all said they agreed with the decision to postpone games. At the same time, there’s a human element they’ve had to deal with in the past 48 hours.
“I texted my captains and they just wanted to practice, they asked if we could find somewhere else to practice,” McDonald said. “They’re into it, they want to finish this season. Some of them said they were crying at their desks finding out they might not play. These kids work their whole life to have a big moment and a big opportunity and to not have that moment, it’s heartbreaking.”
“I saw a lot of other coaches comment after the disappointment of losing a state playoff game, at least they’re not in limbo and wondering what could have been,” Dougherty said. “It’s really our hope to not get wondering what could have been. If we knew three or four days ahead of time we were going to play a game, it would be enough.”
For now, the players and coaches will wait for a more definitive answer and do what they can to be ready when it comes.
“I’m hoping they let us play but at the same time, I understand they have to do what’s safe,” Fergus said. “It’s just a weird situation, you really are in limbo.”
“Our guys are hungry to get back to it, but it’s difficult,” Fleury said. “It’s tough for a good amount of them. I don’t really know what’s going to change in two weeks, are we just holding it off, do we intend on playing it, no matter what it comes down to, it’s tough.”