The word came Friday afternoon from the PIAA’s board of directors: “Play ball.”
In defiance of a “strong recommendation” from the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf, the PIAA declared its intention to continue to plan to sponsor sports such as football, soccer, field hockey, and cross country for thousands of Pennsylvania high school students.
The vote by the board of directors was 25-5 in favor of a motion to begin fall sports on Monday, although many hurdles remain before athletes take the field during the coronavirus pandemic.
The ultimate decision to play still lies with each individual school district. Several school districts in the state have postponed fall sports, as have entire leagues such as the Philadelphia Public League, the Del Val League, and the Friends Schools League.
But for schools in the Philadelphia Catholic League as well as several Southeastern Pennsylvania leagues, the decision by the PIAA cleared the way to continue preparations for fall sports. Most leagues have previously announced plans to delay the start of the season while awaiting further guidance from the PIAA as well as local school and health officials.
“I’m glad a decision has been made. However, there are many other factors that need to be addressed to have a safe and successful season,” said Father Judge athletic director Jake Serfass, chair of the Philadelphia Catholic League.
PCL school presidents still need to approve plans to move forward with fall sports. The league previously announced it was delaying the start of heat acclimatization for football until Aug. 31, with a tentative goal of playing games by late September.
“We still need to digest this and figure out the best way to move forward,” St. Joseph’s Prep athletic director Dan DiBerardinis said. “There’s a lot of logistical things still to work out. Hopefully, we can arrange for these kids to have some kind of fall season.”
Questions loom for many other schools in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
“My understanding is that our next hurdle is the [Chester County] health department and then the school board,” said Downingtown West football coach Mike Milano, whose team won the District 1 Class 6A title in 2019. “My guys and I are very hopeful. We’ve been working hard ... safely.”
Said Coatesville football coach Matt Ortega: “Still a lot of hurdles left. Happy we can keep practicing.”
The PIAA did not address the possibility of postseason play. Executive director Robert Lombardi said the PIAA wanted to determine how many schools were participating in each sport and allow the regular season to unfold for a bit before making plans for playoffs, including state championships.
“The state playoff issue is not going to be the tail wagging the dog,” Lombardi said. “We trying to maximize opportunities for participation for young people. If we’re lucky enough to get some postseason in, even though it may be shortened, we’re going to try.
“That’s an issue that’s to be determined. We’ve got to walk before we run with this.”
After the initial vote to proceed with fall sports, the board of directors unanimously approved a motion to work with schools and leagues that have postponed competition to develop alternate opportunities, such as spring football, soccer, and other sports for Philadelphia Public League athletes.
“That was important to us,” Lombardi said. “The board felt very strongly that they wanted to give opportunities to those young people in those situations. If it’s a shortened season, it’s a shortened season. But otherwise, they would miss out, and nobody wanted to see that.”
Philadelphia School District athletic director James Lynch said the Public League would work with the PIAA to develop plans for staging some fall sports after the new year.
“Our intention remains committed to providing opportunities for all our student-athletes to participate in their chosen sport when it is recommended safe to do so,” Lynch said.
On Aug. 6, the Wolf administration issued a “strong recommendation” that school-sponsored and youth recreational sports be postponed until Jan. 1 at the earliest. Wolf and Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine have said the guidance was “not an order,” and that decisions on sports should be made at the local school district level.
Lombardi said he felt it was important for the PIAA to try to stage fall sports.
“We heard from so many people,” he said. “We felt we needed to try. If things don’t go well, if we have to shut it down, we’ll do that.
“But we’re an athletic association. We’re advocates for young people, for our student-athletes, for our schools, our athletes, coaches, athletic directors, administrators, parents, community. We felt like we had to try.”