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Philly Public League engages athletes with ‘virtual’ program

Online team meetings with topics ranging from nutrition to college preparation have been helpful, but the best part for teen-aged athletes might be the chance to connect with coaches and teammates.

Twin sisters Sierra (left) and Miranda Sosa, 17, are Philadelphia Public League athletes who have engaged with the school district's virtual fall sports program. Sierra is a golfer at Central High and Miranda is a soccer player at Science Leadership Academy.
Twin sisters Sierra (left) and Miranda Sosa, 17, are Philadelphia Public League athletes who have engaged with the school district's virtual fall sports program. Sierra is a golfer at Central High and Miranda is a soccer player at Science Leadership Academy.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

For the girls' soccer team at the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush High School, this season has not involved scoring goals, making saves, or winning games.

It has involved retrieving jewelry with sentimental value and rifling through kitchen drawers, coin jars, and seat cushions in search of exactly 76 cents.

“That was fun,” junior Ava DiCiccio said of the scavenger hunt that marked one of the team’s online meetings during the Philadelphia Public League’s virtual fall sports season. “It was a conversation starter.”

Those kinds of impromptu, informal activities have emerged as a key element of the ambitious initiative to keep the Philadelphia School District’s thousands of idled teen-aged athletes engaged, connected, and motivated during the suspension of competition because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The program has featured sports-specific instruction, advice on nutrition and mental health, information on NCAA eligibility and post-secondary readiness, leadership training, and guest appearances by notables such as Eagles running back Boston Scott.

But despite the importance of the topics, the best part of the program for many of the athletes might simply be the opportunity to spend time, albeit in a virtual setting, with teammates and coaches.

“I’ll never forget the first time we were going to have a meeting, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t wait to see everyone,'” Central High senior golfer Sierra Sosa said.

It’s been the same for Sosa’s twin sister Miranda, a senior soccer player at Science Leadership Academy. And for Eric Taylor, a senior football player at Northeast, and Matt Pajuste, a senior football player at Martin Luther King.

“Without a doubt, not being able to be together with my teammates has been the worst part,” of the Public League’s shutdown of interscholastic sports because of COVID-19 concerns, Pajuste said. “Just being able to connect with them again, that’s meant so much.”

Said Taylor: “We had a bond, a brotherhood, when we were together every day. We lost that but this [virtual program] has definitely helped get that connection back.”

Coaches and athletic administrators report similar stories from across the city. For all the focus on the programming created for the athletes, the sessions seem to have a bonus by-product: recreating that sense of community and camaraderie that is essential to being part of a team.

“It’s just spending time with each other,” Martin Luther King High athletic director Regina Johnson said. “They were together every day on the field and now they have been separated from each other.”

School district leaders believe that with classes across the city being held in virtual settings, athletes need engagement with coaches and teammates more than ever -- even if it means even more screen time.

Kensington High athletic director Gregory Isaacs said more than 200 students from his school have participated in the program, including 77 football players. Isaacs said the initiative has enabled coaches and administrators to offer support and encouragement at a difficult time.

“Just to see a face with initiative and purpose has really resonated with these kids that, ‘Hey, we’re pulling for them,'” Isaacs said.

He said one highlight for his students was an appearance by Scott, the Eagles' player whose upbeat talk resonated with athletes in that sport.

“That was amazing,” Isaacs said.

Philadelphia School District executive athletic director James Lynch, the president of the Public League, spearheaded the program, which will offer three virtual seasons through the end of the calendar year, with hopes for a return to actual competition after Jan. 1.

The fall season began Sept. 14 and will conclude Oct. 23. The spring season runs from Oct. 19 to Nov. 27 and the winter season from Nov. 23 to Jan. 1.

The program features twice-weekly team meetings led by coaches, as well as monthly school-wide town halls led by the athletic director and district-wide town halls led by the sport chair or district administrators.

Lynch said more than 4,400 students have participated in the fall sessions. He said the district hopes to have more than 10,000 students engaged by the end of the calendar year.

“The more touch-points we can have with these students, the greater the chances of success,” Lynch said.

Dean Lent, the athletic director at Swenson Arts and Technology as well as the district chair for cross-country, plans to use the town-hall format this Friday to introduce two former runners to speak with students about the balance between athletics and academics.

There is both sport-specific programming -- Sierra Sosa said Central golfers were able to upload video of their swings -- as well as general instruction on everything from fitness to nutrition to stress management.

“We had a presenter talk about nutrition and that was something that caught my eye,” Miranda Sosa said.

DiCiccio and fellow Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush soccer player Jordan Myers both said instruction on dealing with stress has been valuable in these uncertain times.

“Just helping us understand how to manage it, getting outside and exercising and things that help you,” Myers said.

Their soccer teammate, Alycia Brickhouse, said the rule refreshers have helped her stay mentally sharp in the sport.

“I feel like it’s been so long since I’ve been on the field,” Brickhouse said.

DiCiccio helped organized the scavenger hunt, with athletes charged with finding a sentimental piece of jewelry or 76 cents in change.

“We were like, ‘What can we all find around the house?’” DiCiccio said.

Taylor said nearly every football player for Northeast, which was projected as the top team in the Public League, has been a regular at the virtual meetings. He praised the college-readiness instruction.

“That’s really been helpful,” Taylor said.

But while officials stress the topics in the program -- especially in terms of getting students to ponder their post-high school plans -- the less-structured aspects of the meetings might be making the biggest impact.

Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush athletic director and soccer coach Todd Corabi noticed that during the team’s first meeting.

“The first 10 minutes, they couldn’t stop talking to each other” Corabi said. "Finally, one of the girls' asked me, ‘Are we going to do anything?’

“I told her, ‘You are doing something. You are spending time with each other.’”