Alternative solutions.

Those are new buzzwords on the Philadelphia-area high school sports scene in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For leagues and individual schools that have shut down interscholastic competition in the fall to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus — and, not coincidentally, reduce legal exposure in the event of infections — the term refers to still-developing plans to return teenage athletes to game action sometime in the future.

Both the Central and Ches-Mont Leagues included the phrase “alternative solutions” on Friday in announcing decisions to suspend competition while turning to the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association for assistance in mapping a way forward that could include football and other traditional fall sports in the spring.

“The Central League will stay in constant contact with PIAA to work collaboratively and advocate on creating alternative solutions for our student athletes in order for them to participate in interscholastic competitions,” the league said in a statement that was echoed, hours later, by the announcement from the Ches-Mont League.

Those decisions on Friday meant the majority of high schools in Southeastern Pennsylvania have opted to sit out the fall sports season, with the Suburban One League as the exception.

The SOL executive committee voted 21-1 with two abstentions on Friday to continue with a plan to stage fall sports on a delayed basis, with soccer and field hockey starting games on Sept. 21 and football teams set to hit the gridiron on Oct. 2.

Most Southeastern Pennsylvania high schools have made the decision that it’s not worth the risk — both in exposing athletes to the virus and districts to liability — to try to play this fall, especially given the “strong recommendations” issued jointly Aug. 6 by the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Education that school-sponsored and recreational youth sports should be suspended until Jan. 1.

But there’s far from a consensus. The PIAA has announced its intention to sponsor fall sports. Most of the rest of the state is planning to move forward — Pittsburgh city schools this week reversed an earlier decision to suspend play — and the SOL is a solid pocket of resistance in this corner of the commonwealth.

The result is a crazy-quilt patchwork of a high school sports landscape, leading to confusion, frustration, and “what-about-ism” as risk assessments, protocols and best practices seem to vary from league to league, county to county and state to state.

Caught in the crossfire are thousands of high school athletes, a portion of whom are relying on sports as a pathway to college and a better life. Or maybe just to provide structure, discipline, and camaraderie.

“I know how much that means to so many kids,” said Cheltenham football coach Ryan Nase, who has given his blessing to seniors who seek to transfer to another school to play this fall since the Panthers have opted out of competition.

It’s not lost on many Southeastern Pennsylvania athletes, coaches and fans that much of the rest of the state plans to play this fall, as do the overwhelming majority of schools in New Jersey. And yes, those were high school football games from Alabama and Utah on ESPN on Friday night.

“There’s anger and frustration, and that’s understandable,” said Todd Fairlie, athletic director and football coach at Episcopal Academy, a school in the shut-down Inter-Ac League. “It’s been tough enough as an adult to try to understand what is going on.”

Said Garnet Valley football coach Mike Ricci, whose players learned Friday that their season will be, at best, delayed: “There’s a lot of frustration and justifiably so.”

A Simon Gratz football player wears a shirt with the message “Gratz culture built on effort” during the team's practice on September 25, 2019. Gratz and the rest of the Philadelphia Public League will not be playing football this fall as competition has been suspended until after the new year by the COVID-19 pandemic.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
A Simon Gratz football player wears a shirt with the message “Gratz culture built on effort” during the team's practice on September 25, 2019. Gratz and the rest of the Philadelphia Public League will not be playing football this fall as competition has been suspended until after the new year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Philadelphia, a strangely silent fall looms for high school sports, with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia having pulled the plug on the majority the Philadelphia Catholic League, while the Philadelphia Public League and Inter-Ac League also have announced plans to suspend competition.

The Public League plans to offer a “robust” virtual program for its student athletes with a focus on individual training, preparation for college and recruiting tools, according to Philadelphia School District athletic director James Lynch.

The Pub also plans to work with the PIAA on developing those “alternative solutions,” which likely would feature competition in traditional fall sports after the new year. But it’s a long time between now and a kickoff at the Germantown Supersite in March.

Most of the Philadelphia Catholic League — with the notable exceptions of St. Joseph’s Prep, La Salle, and Devon Prep, which are pursuing their own “alternative solutions” by possibly competing as independents this fall — is planning a similar approach, with continued individual training for athletes, virtual support and tentative formats for staging all three sports seasons after the new year.

“If we have to play in the spring, we’ll play in the spring,” Monsignor Bonner football coach Jack Muldoon said.

Episcopal Academy athletic director and football coach Todd Fairlie says the Inrer-Ac league has created a model for staging all three sports seasons after the new year.
Episcopal Academy athletic director and football coach Todd Fairlie says the Inrer-Ac league has created a model for staging all three sports seasons after the new year.

The Inter-Ac League has created a model for competition after the new year that features three, seven-week seasons, with the winter season followed by the traditional fall season — meaning football and soccer games in late February and March — and the spring season.

“We feel good about having a plan,” Fairlie said. “We know we have to stay flexible. Things seem to change every week. But we’re determined for these kids to have some kind of season.”

Some Ches-Mont football coaches are holding out hope of altered guidance from the Chester County Health Department in early October, allowing for games to start in the middle of that month and continue until Thanksgiving.

“There’s still a glimmer of hope,” Coatesville football coach Matt Ortega said of playing this fall. “And if that falls through, we still have the spring option.”

Given the movement by most of Southeastern Pennsylvania high schools to suspend competition, the Suburban One League is planning to proceed with its own unique approach — business as usual, although on a delayed basis.

Given the go-ahead from respective school boards and school superintendents, 21 of the 24 schools in the SOL are moving forward with what looks to be an abbreviated fall season, with a condensed schedule, limits on travel, and uncertainty about the possibility of District 1 and/or state playoffs.

Under current Pennsylvania guidelines, games also will be played without spectators, although PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi has vowed to continue to lobby the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf and the state legislature to allow a limited number of fans.

Players from Central Bucks West and Coatesville football teams scramble to recover a fumble during the District 1 Class 6A playoffs on Nov. 8, 2019. Central Bucks West is a member of the Suburban One League, which plans to stage fall sports this school year on a delayed basis.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Players from Central Bucks West and Coatesville football teams scramble to recover a fumble during the District 1 Class 6A playoffs on Nov. 8, 2019. Central Bucks West is a member of the Suburban One League, which plans to stage fall sports this school year on a delayed basis.

The SOL’s decision to proceed with fall sports stands in sharp contrast to the approach by most of the rest of Southeastern Pennsylvania but is in concert with the rest of the state and New Jersey as well.

That’s the thing about the local high school sports scene on the brink of the fall of 2020. “Alternative solutions” are everywhere, ranging from the incongruity of football in the spring to the comfort of a kickoff under an autumn moon and those familiar Friday Night Lights.