If PIAA shuts down, AAU teams, other private programs could flourish

Friday, August 7, 2020 | 8:50 PM

Western Pa. Bruins basketball director John Tate jokes that his doctor recommends he eat fewer salt and vinegar chips. In many ways, he views Gov. Tom Wolf’s newest sports recommendation that same way.

“I still eat them,” Tate said.

The governor on Thursday strongly recommended that all youth sports — interscholastic and recreational — be postponed until January to prevent potential covid-19 spread. Tate runs a 16-team girls AAU program that took trips this summer to Indianapolis and Cleveland, and he has no plans to shut down.

“It’s not a mandate,” Tate said. “It’s not a law. It’s not a rule. We’re going to continue to move along as smartly and as safely as we can, as long as our families want to do so.”

If high school sports are canceled this fall, he’ll likely add more events.

A typical AAU season runs from March to July. The Bruins planned to end this year at Labor Day, Tate said, but might extend into December, if high school season is delayed.

He’d organize events with clubs from West Virginia or Washington D.C.

“As a director of a travel club, I’ve got to have a plan through Thanksgiving,” Tate said. “You can’t sit around from September through December. There’s not that much skill work in the world. You have to play the game.”

If recreational sports continue as expected, that surely will add to the PIAA’s frustration. PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi pointed out Friday that private teams have competed all summer without issue.

In a way, he holds them up as a success story.

“There are tennis tournaments all over the area here,” Lombardi said. “Golf tournaments are being played. … They haven’t had an issue. … Girls volleyball, soccer, field hockey are also being carried on, as well as basketball. There was a wrestling tournament around here last weekend that had 1,400 wrestlers.”

Lombardi’s point: If they can compete safely, high schools can too.

“I believe that our schools have done a fabulous job and have full faith in their plans,” he said. “Everything that they’ve been asked to do, they’ve done.”

Tate said AAU sports are taking covid-19 seriously as well, and his teams have had no issues. He declined to say whether any players or family members tested positive, saying he didn’t want to violate anyone’s privacy. But the virus hasn’t been an issue, he said, so there’s no cause to shut down.

“The tournaments we’ve played in locally and regionally, they’re doing the precautions,” Tate said. “Temperature checks. Wiping things down. Clearing the facility after every game to sanitize. Spectators have masks. Officials have masks. Unless you’re shutting the whole (state) down and making everybody stay inside, I don’t know what else you can do.”

Isaac Greeley is founder of The Mat Factory, one of many wrestling clubs that has operated throughout the summer. He hasn’t restarted his youth program for his youngest wrestlers, but junior high and high school athletes are working out now.

Greenley said he’ll take a wait-and-see approach to Wolf’s recommendation but doesn’t plan to close his doors.

“I’ll probably come to a compromise somewhere in the middle,” he said. “I’ll obviously be about the safety of the athlete. But I’ll also consider the future of the kids involved and how sports impact them in a positive way.”

The Mat Factory hasn’t competed in any summer events as a team, but some individuals have. The club’s first team event will be in Monroeville in September, unless the event is canceled.

A couple of club members tested positive for coronavirus after traveling out of state, Greeley said, but his club required them to quarantine for two weeks before returning to practice, so there wasn’t an issue.

Temperature checks and health screening are already conducted. Athletes are also asked to work out with the same partners to limit possible exposure.

If the PIAA shuts down fall sports, there will be an increase in private-sports athletes, Wildcats Select director Tom Droney predicted.

“On one end, these event directors are still going to want to make money,” said Droney, who starred at Sewickley Academy. “On the other side, these kids need to get recruited some way, somehow.”

Coronavirus concerns have limited out-of-state travel for Droney’s program, which held only a few gym sessions in the past six weeks. His team had one workout in Cleveland this summer but played no tournaments, he said.

“We don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way,” Droney said, “and be liable for anybody contracting the virus.”

Greenley’s wrestling club trains many WPIAL athletes, and he’s optimistic the PIAA will move forward with sports.

“If you’re ending seasons for senior athletes, that’s devastating emotionally and psychologically,” said Greeley, who works as a chiropractor. “We’ve had so many athletes go on to college and have great careers, and now have great jobs, great families, they’re great husbands, great fathers.

“To see that outcome laid out in front of you over a 20-year period, you understand it more than maybe a politician would.”

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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