Few tickets. No locker rooms. Covid-19 alters football team plans for PIAA championships

Wednesday, November 25, 2020 | 1:58 PM

Central Valley’s football players will eat Thanksgiving dinner at the school, enjoying food served only by their coaches, before the team boards its buses to Hershey.

The Warriors are headed to the PIAA championships for the second year in a row, but they and the 11 other state finalists will notice a number of changes en route to Hersheypark Stadium and when they arrive.

Among the covid-19 adjustments, there will be fewer fans in the stands, limited locker room access for players and tight sideline restrictions for teams. The changes are required to meet state government mandates for limiting coronavirus spread, PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said.

Teams are limited to 60 individuals on the sideline — players, coaches and staff — and schools are allotted only 386 spectator tickets to fit under the gathering-size restrictions issued Monday by Gov. Tom Wolf. Marching bands and cheerleaders are allowed to attend at their school’s discretion.

“The biggest change from last year is the (lack of) opportunity for people to celebrate the game and take part,” Central Valley coach Mark Lyons said. “That may even trickle down to parents. They have sacrificed many, many days, weeks, years for their son to participate in this. It’s the same for band members and cheerleaders. Now they’re not going to be able to share in that.”

The state championships are Friday and Saturday with three games each day.

The first question teams faced was: When should they arrive? The four WPIAL teams taking part have varying travel schedules. Hotel stays, restaurant reservations and even the bus rides themselves are more complicated when teams face covid-19 concerns.

Central Valley and Jeannette chose to travel a day early on Thanksgiving. Jeannette plays at 11 a.m. Friday, and Central Valley plays at 3:30 p.m.

“There’s something to be said for getting there early,” Lyons said. “You don’t have to have that long bus ride (on game day). But there are pros and cons. We were really torn. There’s also something to be said for sleeping in your own bed.”

With a kickoff at 11 a.m., game-day travel wasn’t an ideal option for Jeannette.

“We thought it would be best from a competitive standpoint to get up there the night before and get a good night’s sleep,” Jeannette athletic director Ryan Hayden said, “rather than wake up, leave at 4:30 a.m. and try to get ready for a football game.”

Pine-Richland, which plays at 8 p.m. Friday, will travel to Hershey on the morning of the game, stay overnight and return home Saturday.

Thomas Jefferson decided not to stay overnight in Hershey either before or after its 3:30 p.m. game Saturday. The Jaguars will drive in Saturday morning and drive home later that night.

“We’re not going to stop to eat at a restaurant or anything,” TJ coach Bill Cherpak said. “We may stop at a rest stop, let them walk around a little bit and maybe get a snack. They can’t eat on the buses because they can’t take their masks off.”

The PIAA wants schools to reduce their traveling roster to increase social distance. If a school brings more than 60, the excess individuals must sit in the stands, Lombardi said.

Players won’t be required to wear face coverings during competition but must on the sideline. Masks are mandatory for coaches but optional for game officials during play.

Teams won’t be allowed to gather in the locker rooms before and after the game or during halftime. The PIAA’s concern is the small size of the locker rooms.

“We’re asking schools to come in partially dressed,” Lombardi said. “They can access the locker rooms in groups of 15 players and one coach at a time for restroom facility access, but there’s no shower availability.”

That’s a worry for teams traveling home after the game.

“I told (the PIAA) we’ve been using locker rooms all year. There have been no issues,” Cherpak said.

At halftime, the PIAA has designated covered areas for the teams under the bleachers, or they can remain on the field.

“The locker rooms stink anyway,” Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz said. “I just hope there’s a private area where we can go, at least that’s warm. Luckily it’s not going to be raining or too cold.”

Ticket sales became the latest issue when the governor reduced gathering sizes statewide.

The PIAA had intended to allot 990 tickets to each school but reduced that number to 800 at the request of stadium administrators. Those plans were scrapped after Wolf limited venues the size of Hersheypark Stadium to 5% of capacity, meaning no more than 780 fans combined for the PIAA championships.

“To say the least, it became difficult,” said Hayden, Jeannette’s athletic director. “We thought we had a plan when the ticket number was around 800, but they reduced it drastically at almost the same time the link to buy tickets went live. We were told of the change so late that there was almost no way to really have a plan.”

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

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