Caught in limbo, WPIAL basketball teams wonder if delay turns into cancellation

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Friday, March 13, 2020 | 3:46 PM


Along with coaching basketball, Spencer Stefko teaches world cultures at North Allegheny, a job that has him studying the effects of a viral pandemic.

“Coronavirus is all that we’ve talked for the last four days because my kids are fascinated by it,” Stefko said. “They’re asking great questions and it’s changing every day, so it’s what we’re doing in class.”

Stefko has found himself watching congressional testimony from health experts, reading about the death rates in Italy and studying infection models for the United States.

“These are the things I’m able to talk about with my kids,” said Stefko, who called the classroom discussions awesome. “I’ve got some kids who are students of science and medicine who love this stuff.”

But, being he’s the school’s girls basketball coach, another question also came up in his class: What would this mean for basketball season? How might the coronavirus pandemic impact his team that was scheduled to play in the state quarterfinals?

That was answered Thursday when the PIAA suspended the state basketball tournaments for at least two weeks, leaving coaches and players in limbo.

Stefko wasn’t too surprised.

“At the beginning of this week, it started to look like it might turn into that when you saw that our (country’s infection) numbers were taking on an exponential model,” he said. “And when you saw what was going on in Italy.”

Executive director Bob Lombardi said Thursday that the PIAA will reassess that coronavirus situation in two weeks. At that point, the PIAA could resume the basketball postseason, extend the suspension or cancel the tournament entirely, under a worst-case scenario.

Until then, the teams must wait.

After seeing the NCAA cancel its men’s and women’s tournaments, joining a list of nationwide cancellations, WPIAL coaches are understandably skeptical about whether the PIAA basketball postseason will resume this winter.

“That’s a good question because I’ve gone back and forth on it,” North Catholic boys coach Dave DeGregorio said. “It’s hard to believe things are going to be better in two weeks. But you’re optimistic that something will work out because you want to compete. It’s just weird. If it does just end it seems to be missing some closure.”

There are 19 WPIAL teams in the same predicament. That total includes 10 girls teams (Bethel Park, North Allegheny, Chartiers Valley, Thomas Jefferson, Trinity, North Catholic, Mohawk, Beaver, Ellis School and Rochester), and nine boys teams (Butler, Mt. Lebanon, Beaver Falls, Lincoln Park, North Catholic, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Sto-Rox, Bishop Canevin and Cornell).

“With everything that’s still evolving, is this really a postponement or is it going to be canceled?” Bethel Park girls coach Jonna Burke said. “It’s kind of hard to live in this state of limbo. I feel for the kids.”

After seeing other states close schools, including neighbors Ohio and Maryland, Burke figured it was likely a matter of time until Pennsylvania followed. Gov. Tom Wolf mandated Friday that all schools close for 10 days, which almost certainly leaves sports teams unable to practice.

Other states, including Connecticut and Colorado, already have canceled their winter sports championships in recent days.

When Bethel Park walked off the court Tuesday after defeating Upper Dublin, the Black Hawks and Burke never considered that might be their season finale.

Now, she’s not so sure.

“That’s not the outcome that I want,” Burke said, “but I’d rather find that out now than try to figure out the next two weeks when the kids might not have school. I’d rather make the decision sooner than later.”

Bethel Park’s would-be quarterfinal opponent, Plymouth-Whitemarsh, is a school district in Montgomery County, the area in Eastern Pa. hardest-hit by covid-19. Upper Dublin also was from Montgomery County.

As of Friday afternoon, there were 33 presumptive positive or confirmed cases of coronavirus in Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, all on the eastern side on the state. Seventeen are in Montgomery County.

The Mt. Lebanon boys basketball team refused to play Wednesday against another Montgomery school, Cheltenham, which influenced the PIAA decision to suspend the season.

“Of course, health and safety always comes first,” Burke said. “We’re not going to be happy with these decisions because we’re competitors. … But this is unprecedented and nobody has anything really to compare this to.

“Not from our time, anyway.”

Stefko remained optimistic that basketball season might resume, but also supported the PIAA decision.

“I’m hopeful,” he said, “but I’m also way more interested in not going down in the history books as a guy who spread coronavirus.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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