The governor says (for now) they shouldn’t play.

The PIAA says (for now) they should play.

The Philadelphia Public League has suspended sports until Jan. 1. The Philadelphia Catholic League and every other high school league in Southeastern Pennsylvania have announced plans to delay competition, awaiting further guidance from school officials, the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf, and the organization that oversees high school sports in the commonwealth.

For most area high school athletes, it’s a waiting game — not exactly their preferred activity.

“We can control what we can control — this is out of our hands,” says Cheltenham High senior football standout Sam Sykes, a running back and linebacker who helped the Panthers to their first appearance in a state championship game in December.

Sykes and other athletes are trying to make the best of an uncertain situation, continuing workouts and hoping against hope that they will be able to play this fall against increasingly long odds.

Cheltenham's Sam Sykes (left) and Archbishop Wood's Ryan D'ambra scramble after a fumble during the PIAA Class 5 A state championship game Dec. 6 in Hershey Park Stadium.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Cheltenham's Sam Sykes (left) and Archbishop Wood's Ryan D'ambra scramble after a fumble during the PIAA Class 5 A state championship game Dec. 6 in Hershey Park Stadium.

With Wolf’s administration issuing a “strong recommendation” against youth sports until the new year, many athletes worry they might be looking at autumn without football under the Friday night lights, as well as an absence of soccer, volleyball, and field hockey games and cross-country meets.

“We understand the situation,” said La Salle College High School senior football lineman Ryan Wills. “It’s been really tough. There’s so much uncertainty, but we’re just trying to work as hard as we can. Our feeling is that we will work as hard as we can and try not to worry about what is happening outside.”

On Aug. 6, the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Education jointly issued a recommendation that school-sponsored and youth sports be put on hold at least until the new year. But the administration said the guidance was “not an order or a mandate” and should be made by individual school districts.

The next day, the PIAA board of directors announced plans to pause fall sports activities for two weeks to seek a “dialogue” with the Wolf administration. In its Aug. 7 statement, the PIAA said it remained committed to staging fall sports.

On Thursday, PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi said his office had been in contact with Wolf’s staff, which reiterated in a meeting Friday that the decision belonged to local school districts. The PIAA board of directors is scheduled to meet next Friday to discuss the start of fall sports.

“I’m pretty optimistic,” West Chester East senior quarterback Ryan Duell said. “We’re supposed to start practice Sept. 8, and I’m preparing like that’s the day when we’re going to start. I try not to let the thought that we might get canceled come into my head. I’m afraid I won’t be able to prepare as well as I need to.”

Father Judge senior cross-country runner Evan Lord also is trying to maintain an optimistic outlook.

“I’m holding out hope,” Lord said. “Everybody wants sports back. Some people need sports even more than I do. It’s a safe haven for them.”

Lord also is a lacrosse standout who was unable to play that sport in the spring or summer. He said the disruption has been difficult to handle.

“It’s been messing with my head and with just about everyone I know,” he said.

The situation is especially stressful for seniors looking at their final seasons of scholastic competition. They watched what last year’s seniors endured when spring sports were shut down because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’re high school kids, and especially us seniors, this is something we’ve been dreaming about,” Wills said. “You dream about that, your senior season. I remember when we were freshmen talking about what we were going to do when we were seniors.”

Duell said the situation is similar for West Chester East’s seniors.

“It’s something we talk about daily,” Duell said. “This was our year. Our friends were going to be in the front row of the student section. We’re going to be the oldest group in the school. We want to live up to that moment.”

Like West Chester East’s seniors, those at Cheltenham are hoping to build off a strong football season in 2019, when the Panthers won 13 games and reached the PIAA Class 5 state finals.

“All we can do is work as hard as we can and stay focused, try to be prepared to have the kind of season we plan on,” Sykes said. “Lot of big shoes to fill, but we think we can do it. We have a lot of younger players who haven’t hit the field yet, but we have confidence in them.”

As a team leader, Sykes said he has worked to keep his teammates engaged and focused.

“A lot of kids where we’re from, football is their only chance,” Sykes said. “Football is their last resort. If they don’t have football, it’s hard to keep them focused. I’m trying to keep everybody together, keep guys right, keep hoping things are going to work out and we’re going to play.”