As Lawrence County transitions to green, football coaches eager to start workouts

Friday, May 22, 2020 | 8:00 PM

Lawrence County is about to turn green, but the battery icon on Joe Cowart’s cell phone was trending toward red.

The New Castle football coach’s phone started buzzing Friday after Gov. Tom Wolf named Lawrence among 17 counties moving into the green phase of his color-coded reopening system May 29, meaning the Red Hurricanes might start working out together in the coming days.

That news had Cowart’s assistants buzzing as well.

“If you gauge our excitement purely on the amount of text messages that went back and forth to my coaching staff today, there’s a very high amount of interest,” Cowart said. “Every three seconds my cell phone was dinging. ‘Well, what are we going to do? How are we going to do it?’

“We’re certainly excited.”

For now, coaches and athletes at New Castle and Lawrence County’s seven other school districts must wait for clearance from the PIAA.

In an email Friday, executive director Bob Lombardi said the PIAA doesn’t expect to announce a date for workouts to resume in “green” counties until at least next week. Lombardi first wanted to hear additional details from Wolf, the Pa. Department of Health and the Pa. Department of Education.

“Once we get more information from the groups – especially regarding schools – we’ll be able to make a statement,” Lombardi said.

Currently, school buildings are closed statewide.

Lawrence is the only WPIAL county that’s turning green next week. The rest will remain yellow, which bans teams from holding workouts.

Also turning green are Bradford, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, McKean, Montour, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Venango and Warren.

“It seems like there’s a whole lot you can do once you’re within the green stage,” said Cowart, who studied the governor’s color-coded charts. “But I need to hear from the PIAA and I have to hear more from my own school administration. The PIAA could say go for it and our school administration may say we’re not ready to do that yet. Or they may have some restrictions that go above and beyond what we have (from the PIAA).”

The PIAA board decided Wednesday to let schools resume offseason workouts in a county-by-county approach rather than force all schools to wait for a common restart date. That likely was good news for Western Pennsylvania, since many counties around Philadelphia remain red.

The PIAA board recognized that the covid-19 outlook varies widely between regions.

Lawrence County has had only 73 cases of covid-19, according to Pa. Department of Health statistics. Among neighboring counties, Butler had 209 cases and Beaver 550.

Statewide, Philadelphia County rank highest with more than 17,000 cases.

“(The PIAA decision) made sense because there’s such a wide variance in Pennsylvania when you look at Allegheny County and Bucks County and all the different parts of our state,” Cowart said. “There’s a wide amount of difference even in Lawrence County and Beaver County. We border each other and they’re vastly different.”

In early April, the PIAA tentatively set July 1 as the date to resume workouts, but the board voted unanimously Wednesday to give Lombardi authority to move that date forward, once the governor approved.

Along with New Castle, the Lawrence County school districts are Ellwood City, Laurel, Mohawk, Neshannock, Shenango, Union and Wilmington, which competes in PIAA District 10.

PIAA teams have been banned from working out together since Wolf closed school building March 13, a week before spring sports seasons were scheduled to start. That shutdown was extended April 9, when Wolf ordered buildings to remain closed for the rest of the school year.

The PIAA was forced to cancel its basketball tournaments, swimming championships and all spring sports.

“I’ve never been away from my team for longer than a week, so this has been really odd,” Neshannock football coach Fred Mozzocio said. “As soon as they give me the green light, my team will be together pretty much daily.”

PIAA rules prevent teams from holding practices during the offseason but football coaches can organize voluntary noncontact workouts throughout the spring and summer months.

“We’ve missed a lot of the spring, which is huge to us,” Cowart said. “Spring is huge and summer is even bigger.”

To meet social distancing requirements, Cowart anticipates a limit on the number of athletes who can work out at one time. That’s easily solved with multiple workout sessions, he said.

Once those workouts resume, the players will need to be eased into activities, Mozzocio said. Most coaches have kept in touch with players online, but they probably aren’t all in top shape.

“I’m sure there’s a group of them that stayed in shape and has done everything that’s been asked of them,” Mozzocio said. “But they are teenagers … and I get calls from parents almost daily that say, ‘Can you reach out to my son? He’s not doing anything right now.’”

Both Cowart and Mozzocio said they have no apprehension about starting workouts and haven’t heard any negative comments from parents. They’re hopeful they can help lead the state’s football teams back to action.

“Every young man needs structure in their teenage years,” Mozzocio said. “This is why we do this. We want to mold young people, teach them work ethic and how to work with others.”

When the time comes, Cowart said, he’s ready to go.

“As soon as possible,” he said. “No question about it.”

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

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