Can sports happen this fall? Local coaches say yes

Disclaimer: Responses from the following coaches were received prior to Thursday's announcement that a member of the Cambria Heights cross country team tested positive for COVID-19.

With a decision looming tomorrow as the PIAA will vote to either greenlight the fall sports season or shut it all down, Laurel Mountain Sports discussed the prospect of fall sports with some of the most-experienced and newest coaches in the area.

The general consensus from coaches, unsurprisingly, is a willingness to play.

Forest Hills cross country coach Tom Hunter is one of the most experienced in the area with 42 years and over 500 victories as a head coach. After witnessing his players in track miss out on the entire season this past spring, he stated that he hopes to see his kids get back to action.

“This year’s team is eager to get back to some sense of normalcy,” Hunter said. “After missing out on their track season, they want nothing more than to get back to competing.”

The PIAA imposed a hefty set of guidelines that it feels will create a safe environment for sports to take place this fall. Throughout summer workouts, players have been subject to routine temperature checks, constant sanitation and individual workouts that promote social distancing.

Realizing the importance of these protocols, coaches indicated they have strictly followed the guidelines as established by the PIAA.

“We are taking all the necessary steps to keep everyone safe,” Hunter said. “Everyone has been very understanding and excited to get started.”

The local sports world was rocked this morning following the announcement that a member of the Cambria Heights cross country team tested positive for COVID-19. The player is currently asymptomatic, but questions regarding the immediate future of the program have been raised.

Cambria Heights’ Resocialization of Sports guidelines explains that any person that displays flu-like symptoms or comes into contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 must be quarantined for 14 days. While the district did not state if the entire team will be forced to sit out the next two weeks or not, it may be safe to assume the team will not see action until quarantining is properly completed.

Cambria Heights cross country coach John Kuskoski brings over 30 years of experience as a head coach, but admitted to Laurel Mountain sports last week nothing has ever been as uncertain as this season.

Following a positive test amongst the ranks of his program, even more red flags are now raised.

“I think there are a lot of question marks right now,” Kuskoski said last week, prior to the positive COVID-19 test. “We are not exactly sure what is going to happen. Our kids are staying positive, but there are just so many concerns right now of whether we are going to have a season or not.”

Kuskoski stated that his team has worked diligently through its summer workouts with strong attendance from the players.

He said his team has also strictly followed all safety protocols this summer, and he added that while he hopes his team can make it onto the course this fall, there are many question marks surrounding the season.

Though there is some unrest as to whether it will happen or not, coaches certainly want to play sports this fall. But should they?

Some of the newer coaches in the area think so.

“We have been holding voluntary workouts since early July,” second-year Forest Hills volleyball coach Cassie Layman said. “Before workouts began, we held a team Zoom meeting to go over the guidelines and also to share that the workouts are voluntary. I feel that my athletes and coaching staff all feel safe to participate this fall.”

Much of the uncertainty regarding the fall sports season falls on the heels of Gov. Tom Wolf’s recommendation that sports be placed on hiatus until Jan. 1, 2021 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The PIAA has allowed summer workouts since July, and in that time, a study of data collected by UPMC showed that only three students across Pennsylvania tested positive for COVID-19.

That data does not paint the whole picture, however.

Central Dauphin School District in Dauphin County canceled sports and other activities for two weeks following numerous positive tests. Big Spring School District in Cumberland County and Exeter Township School District in Bucks County also halted voluntary workouts following positive tests.

But while those schools witnessed positive tests, coaches have ensured that all safety protocols have been followed this summer.

For Portage cross country coach Lance Hudak, who boasts over 20 years of experience as the district’s girls basketball and track coach as well, he believes the success of recreational sports this summer should be noted.

“My daughters and many other local athletes have played travel sports all summer without any problem,” Hudak said. “From basketball indoors to softball outdoors, we have competed against teams from PA and other states with hundreds of spectators at a time. There have been no problems.  

“With the guidelines for returning to competition as set forth by the NFHS and PIAA, there is no reason why fall sports should not go on as usual. Let them play!”

Many of the coaches indicated that in order for sports to take place safely, there is a level of responsibility demanded amongst the players. 

Reports from the positive tests at Central Dauphin are that the virus was contracted at a graduation party. Citing their players as being socially responsible and distancing as much as possible, coaches feel their teams are doing their part to keep the ship afloat.

“I definitely feel that high school sports can take place this fall in a safe environment,” said Central Cambria volleyball coach Abbie Young, who enters her first season as a head coach. “I think student-athletes, coaches, teachers and parents all need to be doing their parts to ensure this can happen. It is up to us, at the level of individual responsibility, to ensure that the season happens for our student-athletes.”

Guidelines from the PIAA have prevented team scrimmages and other group activities amongst teams in its summer workouts. While some sports have not been affected, area football, volleyball and soccer teams have had to be creative in managing summer workouts.

“Being unable to host or attend scrimmages has certainly taken a toll on how preseason looks,” Layman said. “My coaching staff has come up with creative drills that we feel is the best substitute for losing these vital scrimmages. We are fortunate to have a large facility to encourage social distancing of athletes during voluntary workouts.”

Portage Area girls basketball won its first-ever District 6 championship in March, and much of the program’s success has been accredited to the year-long commitment players have dedicated to the sport. But with restrictions on what teams are allowed to do in practice along with the team unable to attend any summer camps, that process has been hindered.

“My assistants and I have had to be creative in both cross country and basketball,” Hudak said. “Organizing workouts and open gyms to not only address conditioning and skill development but to also maintain social distancing has been difficult.”

Some schools in the area have already taken steps to get sports back into motion. The Altoona Area School District voted Monday to continue with sports this fall, and Cambria Heights displayed optimism to move forward on Tuesday. 

“I’m just going to be happy to get our kids together as a team for a couple of games,” Cambria Heights School Board president Ken Vescovi said.

A big hurdle the PIAA will need to leap is liability. Many schools around the state fear the repercussions they could face if they allow sports against the governor’s recommendation.

Several districts have interpreted the recommendation as a mandate, and fear of legal implications if a case of COVID does break out has left many schools questioning what to do.

“There’s no good answer for any of this,” Cambria Heights superintendent Michael Strasser said. “We could be put in a situation where the state comes back on us.”

No coach has gone on record to argue against having fall sports, though the concerns are certainly warranted. The risk of transfer of bodily fluids such as sweat and saliva is high, especially for high contact sports like football.

Though sports like golf may allow for social distancing, many also question how social distancing guidelines can be followed.

“We have followed all CDC guidelines as well as our own district-specific guidelines,” Layman said. “I am beyond impressed with how my athletes have accepted and continue to follow all guidelines in place. The coaching staff is diligent to be sure that they are followed. We have a great group of girls who understand the rules in place and make our job easy by following them. They are very respectful of the situation we are all in.”

Hudak added that the Portage Area School District has taken every precaution necessary.

“In both cross country and basketball, we have remained safe,” he said. “We have followed the recommendations to the best of our ability and worked closely with our new full-time trainer, Jayme Long, in doing so. Jayme has been incredible in assisting us with preventive and follow-up care for our athletes and guiding us through these unchartered waters of COVID.”

Officials from the PIAA have indicated to Laurel Mountain Sports that the league will be holding a meeting today for strategic planning, though subject matter beyond that was not confirmed.

If the league approves for fall sports to take place, it obviously feels it can be done so in a safe manner. Many of the coaches feel the same.

“The team has been working hard in the gym all summer in a safe manner, and I think they can continue to do so against other opponents,” Young said. “They are eager to show their talents, and I hope that they get the chance to do so.”

Follow Laurel Mountain Sports for coverage of the PIAA’s decision.