Concern about unsanctioned workouts grows as PIAA awaits guidelines from governor

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Friday, May 29, 2020 | 11:20 PM


Lawrence County has an abundance of grassy fields, without hash marks or end zones, and there’s probably kids throwing a football around on one.

“There’s acreage and farms everywhere,” Laurel superintendent Leonard Rich said. “Could I see the quarterbacks and the receivers getting together and running routes? I’m not condoning it. Nobody asked my permission. But could I see it happening? Yes. Let’s deal in reality.”

It’s a scene that’s cropped up across Western Pennsylvania during the coronavirus pandemic, sometimes at unlocked football stadiums, even though the PIAA has a ban on team workouts until July 1.

“No coaches” doesn’t always mean “no workouts.”

There’s a good chance they’ll become more frequent now that 17 Pennsylvania counties including Lawrence have entered the “green” phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s color-coded system for reopening the state.

Fourteen others will join them June 5, and it’s still unclear when high school coaches will be allowed to resume offseason workouts.

“A kid can go to the Y and bench, squat and dead lift, and may or may not be under supervision,” Rich said, “but cannot come to our weight room, which would be under supervision. … I would think appropriate supervision would be much safer than what’s going on now.”

Gov. Tom Wolf has school buildings closed for the academic year, so unless the PIAA gets approval, teams cannot resume workouts before July.

However, the PIAA has talked with members of Wolf’s staff, said executive director Bob Lombardi, who’s optimistic new guidelines — and maybe a new timeline — could be ready within days.

“Next week, they hope to get us some information,” Lombardi said Friday. “Once we get that, I think maybe we can get something out (to the schools). At least we’re hopeful.”

The Ohio High School Athletic Association — that state’s version of the PIAA — has already let its schools resume in-person conditioning for all sports including football.

Lombardi said he doesn’t blame anyone who’s growing antsy. The PIAA has waited for guidance from the governor for more than a week.

“I think everybody has cabin fever,” he said. “We do too. We want to be able to give our member schools the best opportunity they can. Right now (the restart date is) July 1. Anything earlier than that we think is a bonus.”

Wolf’s guidelines will direct schools on how to approach covid-19 precautions.

Lombardi said the PIAA won’t write its own covid-19 guidelines out of concern they’d contradict the Pa. Department of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Federation of State High School Associations also released lengthy guidelines, which the PIAA provided to Wolf’s staff.

“We want to be in unison,” Lombardi said.

As for the unsanctioned workouts, Lombardi said that’s a real concern, and the PIAA has worries similar to the coaches and administrators.

“You want to have someone there who’s trained in cardiac awareness, concussions, first aid, had their background clearances — all those types of things,” he said. “That’s why our coaches have to go through that certification — for the care of the athletes. We have some of the same concerns.”

Wolf said during Friday’s press conference that schools “absolutely” will reopen this fall, and his office will release guidelines for schools next week. He didn’t specify whether those guidelines would include restarting sports in the immediate future.

Asked about the PIAA, Wolf said: “I think every single high school and middle school and elementary school in the commonwealth is thinking about how we can get back to as close to normal but keep people safe. Keep the parents safe. Keep the staff safe. Keep the kids safe.”

Lawrence in the only WPIAL county already in the governor’s green phase.

Along with Laurel, the other Lawrence County schools are Ellwood City, Mohawk, New Castle, Neshannock, Shenango, Union and Wilmington, which competes in PIAA District 10. Even if schools are given a green light next week, there’s no guarantee they’d all start workouts immediately.

“You can be impatient, but I think being smart supersedes all that,” said Stacy Robinson, Union athletic director and football coach.

Robinson, who’s entering his 24th season, said he’d first seek out instruction from his school’s administration.

“There’s still so much that’s not known,” he said. “Nobody wants to be the first person to jump into the pond or the lake. Surely, I don’t want to be.”

Robinson said he’s heard stories of players gathering for workouts but puts that responsibility on their parents to keep them safe.

“If their parents are letting them go and work out, I have no problem with that,” Robinson said.

Wolf announced Friday that Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Washington and Westmoreland are among the 14 counties turning green June 5. The others are Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Clinton, Fulton, Lycoming, Mercer and Somerset.

Beaver is the only Western Pennsylvania county that will remain yellow beyond next week. But that doesn’t mean there’s an easy path ahead for schools to play football in the fall.

“I don’t foresee it’s going to be easy,” New Castle athletic director Sam Flora said. “I think it’s going to be tough. I’m a firm believer that you’ve still got to be safe about it. … If you read the (NFHS) guidelines, you’re not going to play any sports. After reading a couple of pages, you might as well pack it in.”

But Flora said he’s hopeful teams can resume workouts sooner rather than later.

“It sounds like we’re going to have some kind of guidelines next week,” he said. “We’ve got to wait and see what the governor says.”

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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