Athletic directors, coaches express relief, optimism as fall sports get go-ahead

Friday, August 21, 2020 | 6:08 PM

Most high school athletes across the state received good news Friday when the PIAA voted 25-5 to begin fall sports Monday.

Now it’s up to each school district to decide if they will allow their students to participate, especially in contact sports such as football, soccer and field hockey.

“I think this is a big step forward for the kids, especially for the issues they’ve been dealing with since March,” Ligonier Valley football coach Roger Beitel said. “These kids don’t want to be left at the altar again.”

Football teams will begin heat acclimatization practice Monday, and the other sports begin full-scale practices.

Hempfield athletic director Brandon Rapp said things will start as scheduled.

“The athletic committee will meet to make sure our policies are in order,” Rapp said. “We feel good about our plans and our coaches. We will monitor things. We’ll do all we can to assure a safe environment for our students.”

Mt. Pleasant athletic director Chris Brunson said his district’s school board already voted to support moving forward with fall sports at its last meeting.

“I am excited for the kids to get a chance to play,” Brunson said. “Our health and safety plans are pretty extensive. Our kids and coaches have been doing everything to get a chance to play. If we give it a go and have to shut it down, at least we tried. I think everyone can live with that.”

Athletes, coaches and school officials waited all week for the decision from the PIAA.

“It’s been pretty crazy waiting for a decision,” Knoch girls volleyball coach Diane Geist said. “It was hard to do any planning. It’s good to finally have a definite answer. I am just happy for the athletes who will get their chance. They really want to play.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf recommended high school and youth sports be halted until Jan. 1. Wolf’s recommendation was not a mandate but allowed school districts to make the decision.

Uniontown decided two weeks ago not to play football or soccer this fall. It is allowing golf, cross country and volleyball. Summit Academy also decided not to play football this fall.

The Philadelphia Public League canceled fall sports. The Pittsburgh City League may do the same pending a vote at a Wednesday meeting. Some individual districts across the state —Milton Hershey, Academy Park and Norristown, for example — will not compete this fall.

Baldwin football’s team worked out together after the PIAA board voted and the players’ excitement was obvious, athletic coordinator John Saras said.

“Our guys were checking in, getting their temperature taken and doing their questions, and they said, ‘Mr. Saras, did you see we have a season?’” he said. “That excitement makes it much better, so much better.”

The district decided to limit its middle school teams to intra-district competition this fall, but the high school programs will compete as usual.

“I’m excited for our student athletes and I’m excited for our school community,” Saras said, “because of the impact that athletics has on the educational program.”

Mike Burrell, the current athletic director at Greensburg Salem who will take over Norwin’s AD post Aug. 31, said both districts are ready to roll Monday.

“We had our return-to-play plan set back in June,” Burrell said. “The teams have been following our plan, and they’re ready to get started.”

Said Deer Lakes football coach Tim Burk: “We’ll jump through whatever hoops we have to to make it work. We were reading about the pods, and we can make that work. Just being able to know that we can go on Monday is a huge relief.

“My heart is happy for the kids, because that’s what it’s about.”

The WPIAL already has shortened the seasons for the teams. Football will start Sept. 4 with a scrimmage, and the season begins Sept. 11.

“It is a sense of relief. You’ve seen the reaction from the students and how much they want to play and how much we want them to play,” Highlands athletic director Drew Karpen said.

“It’s important for them to get back to athletics and how much it means to them and it means to their growth and development.”

Rapp said it will be interesting to see what other districts decide now that the decision is in their hands.

“It’s something that we’ll definitely talk about as an administration,” Karpen said. “I, obviously, will be recommending that we move forward, but it’s something that I won’t be making the decision on my own. We’ll see what the consensus is.”

Plum athletic director Josh Shoop added: “I am confident in our safety protocols we have in place. Obviously, when we start hosting events, there will be more to do. I believe we can conduct them safely. Our board meets on Tuesday, and we will ask them for permission to continue on with our fall sports.”

Teams whose school boards decide to press on with sports will have a lot of work ahead of them.

“It’s the right decision. You have to try. It’s going to take an extreme amount of daily personal discipline and commitment,” Franklin Regional boys soccer coach Rand Hudson said. “Whatever our parents and players think of the virus, it is now an additional enemy of our goals. Do your daily job, concentrate, focus, each day. If you look at the big picture and say, ‘How do we do this?’ It can be daunting.”

One of the big questions was about liability if somebody gets sick.

The PIAA, WPIAL and all the districts want to make sure they are covered if that happens.

“I’ve been on these calls throughout this process with different ADs and people at the state level,” Karpen said. “I think they’ve done their due diligence and researched it.

“I trust the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. That’s their job to make sure we’re doing things the right way and keeping kids safe.

“By all accounts, if we follow all of our protocols and do what we are supposed to do, we can create a safe environment. That’s not to say that someone couldn’t get the virus, but we’re going to do everything we can to protect our kids and our communities.”

Another unanswered question involves how the schedule will hold up once an athlete inevitably tests positive.

Belle Vernon athletic director and football coach Matt Humbert said his district is anxious to get the season going but will continue to have an eye toward the safety of athletic personnel.

“We’re obviously excited that we can progress and move into the season, but there’s still the lingering concern over how quarantines may affect a team’s ability to fulfill its schedule,” he said. “Hopefully there will be a consistent plan across the districts to handle these types of situations.”

Monessen first-year football coach Shane Swope said he and his players have been preparing for a season and tried to block out outside chatter that that plan would collapse.

“The back and forth on will there be a season, won’t there be a season, didn’t have an effect in that regard,” Swope said. “Like I told the team, we control what we can control. We were getting ready until someone told us not to. Now that that’s not a question anymore. It’s back to business as usual.

“We’re definitely excited to get the pads on and play some football.”

Staff writers Bill Beckner Jr., Michael Love and Greg Macafee contributed.

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Paul by email at or via Twitter .

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