WPIAL football teams ready to embark on season like no other

Thursday, September 10, 2020 | 1:13 PM

After an evening of continuous collisions, two of the WPIAL’s top football teams wanted to show their respect for one another, but they weren’t exactly sure how.

Players typically line up after a scrimmage, meet at midfield and shake hands. But as teams have learned, simple elements of football season feel anything but routine under covid-19 conditions.

Coaches’ faces are hidden by masks, and thermometers are now more important than whistles. Locker rooms could be off limits at halftime. Stadium bleachers might remain mostly empty. There are new rules for bus rides. Bottled water has replaced the water coolers.

And, yes, there are no more handshakes.

“It seems like no big deal, but our kids like that handshake,” Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said after scrimmaging Gateway. “It felt awkward. It almost feels disrespectful.”

So, the players instead stood on opposite sidelines — socially distant by 50 yards — and they waved.

“If you’ve been doing something for so long, you have habits and routines,” Gateway coach Don Holl said. “You saw it at the end with the handshake. Guys were going (to midfield) and they said, ‘Wait a minute. We can’t do this.’ We’re constantly catching ourselves.”

Sometimes the new restrictions seem extreme, but after an emotionally taxing summer of wondering will they or won’t they have a season, players and coaches alike say they’re willing to do whatever it takes to play. With comprehensive covid-19 protocols in place, WPIAL football season kicks off Friday night.

Teams were energized when the PIAA pushed forward with football season against guidance from the governor, but they accept there are no guarantees for what lies ahead.

“Like I told our kids, you have to almost treat every game like it’s a state championship, because we don’t know,” Burrell coach Shawn Liotta said. “There might not be a game next week. It’s out of our hands. It makes you really appreciate every day you’re out there.”

Yet, despite the added protocols meant to prevent coronavirus spread, not everything about football season will be different. Last weekend’s scrimmages proved that between the lines, football is still football.

“If you were circling in a UFO from Mars and looked down, there were some people in the stands watching some good football on a Friday night in Western Pennsylvania,” Holl said.

That was true, even if everything else felt alien.

“Once we got on the field, it was business as usual,” Cherpak said. “Everything leading up (to kickoff) and afterward was a lot different.”

Stadium atmosphere certainly won’t be as raucous. Some will have widely spaced duct-tape Xs marking where spectators can safely sit. Marching band and cheerleaders are allowed, but large student sections standing shoulder to shoulder likely won’t be seen anytime soon.

Until recently, all spectators were banned from attending interscholastic events under guidelines from Gov. Tom Wolf. The governor lifted that ban Sept. 2, but left strict limits on how many individuals can gather outside. His limit of 250 individuals also counts athletes, coaches, officials and all other game-day workers.

With help from state lawmakers, schools might increase crowd sizes somewhat, but even so, the stadiums won’t be filled. The state Legislature passed House Bill 2787 this month to give school districts the authority to set their own attendance limits, an effort Wolf was expected to veto.

“It’s going to be a lot quieter,” said Pine-Richland senior Cole Spencer, one of the WPIAL’s top quarterbacks. “We’re going to need the sideline (players to make noise). They’re a big contributor to the game atmosphere, even when there’s a whole band, cheerleaders and crowd. The sideline definitely needs to be the hype up for us, and our announcer had better be unreal up there.”

Seeing the stadium almost empty would be a strange sight, Spencer said, but he’s intrigued that Pine-Richland’s student section might borrow a trick from professional sports teams.

“I think our student section said they’re going to make cardboard cutouts and put them in the seats,” Spencer said. “They said they might even put the players’ parents up there.”

If the attendance remains limited, cardboard fans might pop up around the WPIAL.

Trinity’s girls volleyball team was among the first groups already selling them as a fundraiser. For $35, Trinity fans could “attend” home games as a 24-inch by 36-inch cardboard cutout. “Enthusiastic expressions are encouraged,” said the organizers.

The expressions on athletes’ faces changed almost daily this summer. At times, it appeared football would start in August. At others, football seemed certain to be canceled or delayed until spring.

“There were definitely times where I didn’t know if we were going to play,” said Gateway senior Derrick Davis, a four-star safety/running back with scholarship offers from Pitt, Penn State, Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State, Southern Cal and others. “We were playing a waiting game. Waiting on the governor to make his decision.”

If football season was pushed to the spring, Davis wasn’t certain he’d have played. But for now, there’s a sense of relief that he and his family weren’t forced to make that decision.

“There’s definitely a different level of appreciation, because you never know when it’s going to be your last time to play,” Davis said. “This is my senior year. For me to get the chance to play, it’s a blessing.”

To stay under 250 individuals, many large schools must reduce the number of band members and cheerleaders on game days. Norwin plans to use a 40-person pep band. North Allegheny reduced its band to 45. Other bands might play before the game, leave and then return at halftime, after the football team exits. They’ll move in shifts, that way there’s never more than 250 individuals in the stadium at once.

This fall will be hectic for WPIAL athletic directors, asked to find creative ways to solve unprecedented problems. Yet, despite the risks ahead, only Summit Academy decided to opt out of football season.

“There’s a great deal of work, but most important, there’s a great deal of responsibility,” North Allegheny athletic director Bob Bozzuto said. “Every decision you make involves the health and welfare of your kids. Based on all of the information, I think we’re making the right decision. But it’s not easy.”

Many football teams will dress fewer players this fall, especially for road games, so they can follow social distance guidelines easier. But the adjustments start long before a football team reaches the stadium.

“I didn’t enjoy wearing a mask on the bus for an hour, but that’s what you have to do,” said Liotta, whose Burrell team scrimmaged at Indiana.

Liotta said he doesn’t expect locker rooms to be available for the teams opener at Valley, so his players will board the bus dressed in their uniforms.

“We’re willing to do anything that lets these kids play on Fridays,” he said. “If they told me I had to wear a dang scuba suit with a snorkel or one of those underwater apparatuses with the big helmet, I 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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