The wait on the fate of fall high school sports continues

Bob Parana - Staff Writer

There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not asked if fall high school sports will be played. I don’t have a reply. What I do know is coaches, players, parents, officials, and spectators are getting more frustrated each day there is no response to the question. For the record, so are sportswriters and broadcasters. It also appears a final decision may be left up to area schools and District IX.

It is not my decision to make and to voice my opinion serves no purpose especially since there will be controversy either way. I have to adhere to any information I receive “off the record” staying “off the record.” Things not only can change daily but hourly. Last Thursday Pa. Governor Tom Wolf, along with Pa. Department of Health, issued a joint press release making a recommendation to cancel all youth and high school sports until January 2021. While driving home from the Elk-McKean All-Stars-Southern Tier Cardinals co-op team’s 4-1 win over Titusville I pulled off the road when I heard the ping of several text messages. One from a source in the Harrisburg area informed me that they were 95-percent certain the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) was going to announce the cancellation of fall sports the next day.

I bit but didn’t fully chomp on the tidbit. An announcement did come from the PIAA Friday afternoon postponing the start of official practice and play for two weeks. While it didn’t fully answer the question it did keep hope alive for high school sports in September. Tuesday the executive director of the PIAA Robert A. Lombardi, sent a letter to Governor Wolf’s office requesting an opportunity to discuss possible options for schools to play sports. He stressed the PIAA shares the state’s goal of reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19 by reducing activities where large groups of people congregate.

Lombardi noted in the letter student-athletes will be competing in sports whether sanctioned or not on a recreational level. “Come fall, if schools are unable to engage in sports, and absent another mandatory shutdown, families, and students will not stop playing. They will simply find other outlets. Halting interscholastic athletics will not eliminate the risk, it will simply shift it to other venues that lack sufficient oversight,” he said.

Lombardi also pointed out athletic events have and are currently being held throughout the Commonwealth. “To our knowledge, none have reported problems with coronavirus breakouts” and said so far “parents and families have shown that they are willing to allow their children to continue to participate in sports whenever available.”

Ridgway, Johnsonburg, Kane, Elk County Catholic, and St. Marys have been holding voluntary fall sports workouts in the hope of beginning official practices Aug. 24 for football. The sports mandatory Heat Acclimatization Week was to begin Aug. 10 and will now begin Aug. 24 if no further decisions are made. Official practice for the rest of the sports volleyball, soccer, golf, girls tennis, and cross-country will begin the following Monday.

According to the Aug. 12 edition of The Ridgway Record, several students and parents voiced their opinions to move ahead with the fall seasons at Tuesday night’s Ridgway Area School District’s board meeting. “Superintendent Heather McMahon-Vargas pointed out that the health and welfare of students is the most critical factor in any decision and students must adhere by the guidelines so that Ridgway remains low in Covid-19 cases, PIAA guidelines say that as long as students follow the guidelines, the playing of sports should be relatively low-risk. However, this must be a District IX decision overall,” reported Brian Stockman in the newspaper account.

In the letter to the governor’s office, Lombardi said the PIAA wants to play “in the good fall weather and stay away from the start of the flu season.” He also acknowledged that the PIAA understands the COVID situation is different throughout the state which has forced some schools to shut down all or some sports activities.

Football is considered a high-risk fall sport. Soccer, volleyball, and tennis moderate-risk, and golf and staggered start cross-country low-risk.

Social media is a hotbed of discussions on the subject which at times turn angry. They are filled with petitions that can be signed to sway the state into going forward with high school sports. A major rally is scheduled at the capitol in Harrisburg at 11 a.m. Aug. 20.

The state’s 12 geographical districts are continuing to reshuffle schedules due to the delay and at this time there is no “official” word on District IX’s plan. There have been scenarios tossed around that would eliminate league play and would see match-ups between teams that are closer in proximity than the district-wide competitions. The PIAA and districts have not announced intentions for championships. The state’s athletic organization was forced to halt basketball and swimming championships in March which also led to the cancellation of spring sports.

A huge issue if sports do go-ahead is the ability to have fans in the stands. It’s hard to imagine games without packed stadiums. However, I have had the opportunity to cover the NY/PA Corporate Cup Soccer Showcase in Olean Aug. 2 which allowed two spectators to be invited by each player and the Aug. 7 Frank Varischetti all-star football game in Brockway which didn’t allow fans. The competition was incredible to watch but it did seem a bit eerie being on the sideline with empty bleachers. Hundreds of fans did gather outside the Varischetti Field for the football game. Practices and the contests themselves did adhere to all safety guidelines.

The two-week clock set by the PIAA Aug. 7 continues to tick. A week in we still don’t have the answers and may not until we hear the buzzer. The prospect of a complete cancellation by the state is still possible. In the meantime, the approximately 500 PA school districts are tasked with opening for classes which has to be giving top priority. At the same time, the schools and 12 PIAA districts are continuing to monitor and build plans to do their best to get student-athletes on the field, courses, and courts while adhering to all federal and state COVID guidelines.

For now, the PIAA is doing its best to open in-depth discussions with the state to “develop and approach what would be acceptable” to the Commonwealth.