Matt Ortega saw it coming back in August.

“There’s still a glimmer of hope,” Ortega, the highly successful football coach at Coatesville High School, said when the Ches-Mont League announced Aug. 28 the decision to suspend fall sports because of the coronavirus outbreak.

What seemed a slim possibility late last month has moved into the realm of probability as a strong movement to reverse course and re-institute fall high school sports is sweeping through the Southeastern Pennsylvania high school landscape.

The Ches-Mont League, which includes Coatesville, Downingtown West and Downingtown East as well as West Chester East, West Chester Rustin and West Chester Henderson among other schools, on Thursday opted to allow each individual district to decide whether to proceed with competition in football, soccer, field hockey and other traditional fall sports.

Downingtown district athletic director Corey Sigle said that the Downingtown School District “is moving forward with official fall practices beginning Monday.”

The Central League, which includes Garnet Valley, Radnor, Lower Merion and Haverford, is expected to issue the same guidance early next week, according to sources within the league.

“We’re playing,” said a Central League football coach who asked not to be identified. “Most schools have agreed to go.”

Coatesville head coach Matt Ortega has built one of the strongest football programs in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
KRISTON JAE BETHEL / For The Inquirer
Coatesville head coach Matt Ortega has built one of the strongest football programs in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Another Central League coach who asked not to be identified since the official announcement isn’t expected until Monday said his players were thrilled with word of the development.

“They are tickled to death," the coach said. “They’ve been coming to practice since the beginning of July with hope. Now they are jacked up.”

Ortega called the Ches-Mont’s action on Thursday a “first step” toward returning to the field for the Red Raiders, who have won or shared four consecutive Ches-Mont National division titles as well as two District 1, Class 6A titles in the last four seasons.

“Now we need to see who is playing and formulate a schedule,” Ortega said.

There also has been speculation that some schools in the Inter-Ac League, which like the Ches-Mont League and Central League announced in late August it was postponing fall sports because of the COVID-19 pandemic, have begun to investigate the possibility to returning to the field.

“It’s only speculation at this point,” Episcopal Academy athletic director and football coach Todd Fairlie said. “We are hoping our league will stay flexible.”

The movement toward returning to fall competition would not seem to apply to schools in the Philadelphia Public League, since the Philadelphia health department has issued guidelines prohibiting “high-risk" sports such as football and soccer within city limits.

St. Joseph Prep, which won the PIAA Class 6A title in December with a victory over Central Dauphin, still hopes to return to the field this fall.
Bob Williams For The inquirer
St. Joseph Prep, which won the PIAA Class 6A title in December with a victory over Central Dauphin, still hopes to return to the field this fall.

That guidance also would apply to Philadelphia Catholic League schools within the city, which has been a complicating factor in St. Joseph’s Prep’s efforts to play football this fall.

The Hawks, who have won two straight PIAA Class 6A state titles and three of the last four, are projected as the No. 1 team in Pennsylvania and one of the top teams in the country. St. Joseph’s Prep officials continue to work through logistical issues with regard to practice sites, field availability and travel in an effort to have the football team play this season.

Most of the Philadelphia Catholic League is under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which in late August announced that its 17 high schools would not be competing in interscholastic competition this fall.

The current push to return to play seems to spring from a confluence of factors, including persistent pressure for the last three weeks from students, parents and politicians, many of whom have been outspoken in their insistence that the emotional and social dangers to the well-being of teenage athletes outweighs the risk of the coronavirus outbreak.

In addition, most high schools in the rest of Pennsylvania have begun to play fall sports, without any reports of infection spikes. New Jersey plans to start games in fall sports in early October, and the Delaware Board of Education voted this week to reverse course and allow high schools in that state to play after making a decision in August to delay competition until after the new year.

One high school football coach said the Big Ten’s decision this week to reinstate football this fall also helped increase the momentum for high schools to take the field.

“We’re so tied into Penn State,” the coach said.

Another impetus has been revised guidance from the Chester County Health Department, which on Monday clarified its position on school sports, according to Chester County Public Information Officer Rebecca Brain.

The clarification notes, “The Chester County Health Department acknowledges the decision to resume sports-related activities, including conditioning, practice and games, is and has always been, at the sole discretion of the school entity’s governing body.”

In their Aug. 28 announcements of the decision to postpone fall sports, both the Ches-Mont League and Central League referenced “taking its direction” from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the governor’s office and the Chester and Montgomery County Health Departments, all of which had recommended against competition.

The Pennsylvania departments of health and education on Aug. 6 jointly issued a “strong recommendation” that all school-sponsored and youth-recreational spots be postponed until Jan. 1, 2021.

However, both Gov. Wolf and Pennsylvania health secretary Rachel Levine have stressed that the decisions on sports were at the discretion of local districts.