Local sports are coming back for the first time since mid-March, when events at every level came to a screeching halt as the COVID-19 outbreak spread through the United States.
But for many athletes and many leagues the question remains: Will it last?
Youth baseball and softball leagues are back. Basketball — including the popular summertime AAU tournaments — is back. And big news from the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association came July 15, when executive director Dr. Robert Lombardi announced that the state plans for all fall sports practices to start on time next month.
Local high school athletes have returned to on-campus activities in recent weeks, after schools across the state approved health and safety plans to reopen facilities and begin voluntary workouts.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported last week that the PIAA plans to introduce sport-specific guidelines for fall teams, coaches and officials when its board of directors meet Wednesday. According to the report, the PIAA strategic planning committee and the PIAA medicine advisory committee are reviewing those plans, and the board will vote to approve the guidelines during Wednesday's meeting.
After that, heat acclimatization practice for football teams is scheduled to begin Aug. 10, with all other fall sports teams getting started Aug. 17.
“For now, we’re totally focused on, ‘Hey, we’re here, we’re involved, and we’re going day by day,’ ” said Solanco athletic director Anthony Hall, who also serves as the Lancaster-Lebanon League’s field hockey chair.
“We’re thankful that we’re doing something right now, and hopefully everything is a go on Aug. 17. If things change next week, we’ll adjust and deal with it. I’m trying to be completely positive and honest with everyone.”
Positive and honest, because not all of the news this summer has been good.
CANCELED, SUSPENDED, POSTPONED
Multiple local athletic conferences have shelved or suspended their fall seasons, including the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (featuring Millersville), the Centennial Conference (featuring Franklin & Marshall) and the North Eastern Athletic Conference (featuring Lancaster Bible College).
Major Division I college conferences are discussing condensed fall schedules, with division-only games to cut down on travel as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc.
Locally, popular events like the LNP Tournament and the Lancaster County Summer Swim League pulled the plug, and the Atlantic League — featuring the Lancaster Barnstormers — canceled its baseball season.
Plus, the six states that border Pennsylvania — Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and West Virginia — have all pushed back the start of fall practice for high school athletes.
“What worries me is that so many places around us are shutting down,” L-L League executive director Ron Kennedy said. “New York recently started postponing, and that’s concerning. If those other surrounding states start falling, I’ll definitely be concerned about what happens to us.”
“But,” Kennedy added, “I’m definitely encouraged because the PIAA has a plan, and schools have health and safety plans, and they’ve been following those. And that’s important to note.”
For now, schools are operating on the health and safety plans that gained board approval this summer. Athletes, coaches, trainers and other personnel must adhere to those rules, meaning social distancing, wearing masks, gathering in smaller groups and plenty of hand-washing and equipment-sanitizing in between workouts.
STILL UP IN THE AIR
But there are some big questions that don’t have answers:
What happens if the fall sports season starts on time, games are being played, and a player or a coach or a parent or a school official tests positive for COVID-19?
Further, must that team forfeit games moving forward? Must everyone on both teams that were potentially exposed be tested and then quarantined for two weeks? Can teams add games if an opponent has to forfeit games because of a positive test? What if schools don’t open, and students are home-schooled to open the fall? Can teams still practice and play games at on-campus facilities? Will fans be allowed to attend games? Will individual districts or the PIAA sponsor playoff games?
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Kennedy said, “but those decisions will come from a higher authority. The frustrating part is that there aren’t any answers right now. Schools are still trying to decide how they’re going to come back in the fall. It’s a difficult situation because there are no true and tried answers for what we’re all dealing with.”
“Who knows what it’s going to look like?” said Lancaster Catholic athletic director Rich Hinnenkamp, the L-L League’s soccer chair. “But we do have some time to figure all of that out. Right now, our emphasis is getting started on Aug. 17, and moving forward. The PIAA has always been on the side of seeing what we can get in, as long as the governor allows it.”
That’s why allowing athletes to return to on-campus activities this summer was such a big step.
“It was encouraging,” Hall said. “But in the very next breath, I’m wondering when the next announcement is coming. My big thing is that nobody has made any decisions about what school is even going to look like. So how can we realistically know what athletics are going to look like?”
Kennedy’s message to the L-L League community: Be patient, remain optimistic and take advantage of the on-campus summer workouts while you still can.
“I know these are difficult times, and I know people are begging for answers,” Kennedy said. “Look, we’re all in this together, so it’s a good time to lean on each other and ask a lot of questions, and hopefully all of the answers will come soon.
“I’ll shout this from the high heavens: I think we have great athletic directors in our league, and they’re all top-notch and they all work hard. We’ll all do what’s best for the kids.”
In the meantime, everyone must play by the rules during these voluntary summer workouts, so the PIAA can stick with its timeline.
“We’re planning for the fall, and we’ll have a plan in place, league-wide, starting with the first day of football heat acclimatization, and then the first day of regular practice,” Kennedy said. “We’ll do the things we need to do, and we need everyone to be following their health and safety programs, like they’ve been doing. After that, we need to be prepared for anything.”
Literally, as the COVID-19 numbers continue to rise; Pennsylvania has more than 105,000 cases, with more than 7,000 deaths. Lancaster County is at 5,200-plus cases with more than 400 deaths.
“Our mentality here is that we’re going to go super slow, and make sure our kids are getting back out, getting in shape, and getting out of the house,” Hall said. “That’s exciting, because we’re continuing to move forward like it’s a normal year. But I’m also taking it with a grain of salt because it could look completely different in two weeks.”