The countdown to the 2020 high school soccer season in Pennsylvania is underway.
On Wednesday, PIAA confirmed that things are moving forward for all Fall sports, including boys and girls soccer.
PIAA is moving forward with start of the Fall Sports Season as scheduled. pic.twitter.com/HGyoPde6cB
— PIAA (@PIAASports) July 15, 2020
Prior to this, on July 3 the PIAA put out its guidelines for off season workouts with regard to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve put things in the hands of individual districts to make the call on when to allow on-campus workouts and follow specific safety protocols.
Shortly after this, with the green light to get back on the field, many soccer programs began their usual summer conditioning sessions.
— Dan Yates (@danyatessoccer) July 15, 2020
“It’s almost been like breath of fresh air.” Jordan Wiegand, boys head coach at Pine-Richland, said.
“That’s the best way to describe it. Finally nice to get out there. They’re back with family.,”It’s great for morale. They’re very happy. There’s a lot of joy for them being back around the game.’
In more than 10 years of coaching Wiegand has never experienced spending this much time away from his players, even in the off season, when he usually would see players get together for indoor games, optional workouts or some technical training.
“It’s been challenging,” Wiegand explained. “I never would go a week without seeing some of the guys. At first, I was doing some things virtually. It was different. Now, that they’re back, we’re able to get into sessions where they can work on fitness and technical training.”
Because it’s a 4A school, Pine-Richland’s total roster size from 9th through 12th grade is right around 59-60 players. Wiegand said that they’ve been getting more than 40 players for each optional training.
Rafal Kolankowski is the head boys coach at Plum, where they’ll be dropping in classification from 4A to 3A this coming season.
Kolankowski shared that his program just started optional workouts this Monday.
“It’s the first time we’ve been able to get together in a long time. We had to have waivers signed. Can only have limited groups, but the kids were excited to get together. It’s been good for them to get on the field. It’s almost like back-to-normal. They’ve been cooped up since March. We can be together now. We can play now. It was nice to see everyone, that’s for sure.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum, down in Washington County, at Class 1A Bentworth High School, a small, rural school district where they barely graduate 100 kids annually from their senior class, long-standing girls coach Tyler Hamstra has been able to see optional workouts up and running in the past week too.
Bentworth typically has somewhere in the ball park of 25 to 30 kids per year in its girls and boys programs, which have been fairly successful, winning numerous section titles. The girls team recently graduated two prolific players in Paige Marshalek and Joceyln Timlin,
“During the past four months, we haven’t been able to do anything through the high school,” Hamstra said. “When the girls finally had a chance to get together on the soccer field, they were so excited to see each other. I was dragging my feet a bit, and gave them extra time during water breaks, and even before practice started, because that was really important.”
With a quality group of players from last year’s senior class graduating, Hamstra knows that his program would have benefited from having more time together playing indoors in the spring or having earlier workouts in the Summer, but acknowledged that he’s more fortunate than some of the other schools in his section and across the lower classifications.
“We’re in a better spot. We have a little more of a tradition. A pipeline here with our program, with a few more players that we now will be coming up and want to play at high school level,” Hamstra explained.
“Some schools on our level don’t have that luxury. Some programs haven’t done anything yet with off-season conditioning and technical work. Some don’t do too much either until they officially start practicing. A lot of these programs may have just 13, 14 or 15 kids in their entire program. If we don’t have season. If there are no Fall sports. It could be a nail in coffin for some programs. It could set some back a few years. That part’s scary.”
Hamstra anticipated that if participation at schools decreases or if they start with low numbers, then there are a few positive cases, which each coach interviewed for this story acknowledged will likely happen, there’s a certain concern that it could be devastating for some programs.
“For some smaller schools, their window, their chance to make playoffs comes around once or twice a decade. They need something to build around. Having success at the high school level helps with building a pipeline all the way through from the middle school level,” Hamstra explained.
Looking at the positive side of things, if strong turnouts from optional workouts are an indicator, there appears to be a strong response from players, with support from their parents and assurances from their school districts and the PIAA’s announcement on Wednesday, most programs should not see much drop off in participation numbers.
Bentworth is part of a community with very few positive cases.
Hamstra, who is a funeral director in the area, sees no hesitation from a large majority of folks and he believe moving ahead with Fall high school sports is the right thing to do.
“No one has reservations. Thus far, we’ve had a great turnout. The girls are hungry to get back. They’re ready to get back.,” Hamstra said.
How bad do young soccer players want to get back to normal?
When full practices commence in mid-August, Hamstra said his girls are hoping for a return to all of the grueling aspects which come with being a high school soccer player.
“They want to get up early — go 6 a.m.’s (training sessions),” exclaimed Hamstra. “That’s the way it used to be. That’s a hard wake up for them, but that’s way it was when things were operating normally. They’re craving that!”
Since the outset of optional workouts, each soccer program follows pretty strict protocols.
At Pine-Richland, Bentworth and Plum, they’ve been taking temperature checks prior to each session, and the players at Pine-Richland are also responsible for completing a survey on GoogleDocs and at each school waivers have to be signed.
“We’ve had to be very detailed. Taking temperature. Charting attendance,” Wiegand said. “Once PIAA put it in our hands. Each school had to come up with a plan. There’s checks and balances.”
Coaches are also becoming quickly schooled and taking a leadership role in enforcing precautions and COVID-19 protocols.
As a funeral director, Hamstra already has plenty of experience and has been at the forefront working in a position that is vital to preventing the transmission of germs.
“We just always have to pretend that everything’s dirty. Sanitize everything. Be Smart. Never think anything can be nothing. Make sure kids and coaches acknowledge that they’re always in contact with germs. Protect our immune system. Limit touching everything. The club (soccer) programs have been doing it earlier during the pandemic,” Hamstra said. “Everything I’ve seen — everyone is doing everything the right way. Checking temperatures. Asking questions. I feel good about everything.”
Heading into the opening of training camp, which for PIAA/WPIAL soccer programs will be August 17, coaches and athletic directors are preparing accordingly.
“It’s definitely going to be different,” Kolankowski admitted. “Everyone will wear mask that sits on bench. The coaches will be wearing masks. This is changing the way we do everything. Once kids get used to it. It should work out, but they’re kids and it’s going to tough to keep them social distancing and making sure they’re following all the protocols.”
While there have been numerous college conferences and soccer programs that have already suspended Fall sports, high schools have a little more time to figure things out, and PIAA’s announcement on Wednesday buys them some more time between now, and when they can start practicing in mid-August.
“Between all coaches, the AD’s – nobody knows,” Wiegand said. “It’s an eerie feeling. My hope is that (colleges) are more concerned with costs/travel. They have to go out of state. The high school game, I am hopeful and optimistic. If there’s a way we can make it manageable, then we should do it. It’s not a question of if we’ll have any cases, but when. It’s going to be important how we manage it.”
Earlier this month, Governor Tom Wolf and PA Department of Education rolled out its guidelines for the reopening of schools (K-12). Some schools have already begun to roll out plans for what their scholastic schedules will look like, while some others are rolling out different options.
Bentworth is already planning to go back to a five-day per week, in-school schedule. In fact, only less than 3 percent of its students have opted for remote learning plan.
Pine-Richland and Plum have shared various options for students.
“Everything I’ve seen from (Bentworth) the school district has been positive stuff,” Hamstra stated. “It’s a darn good plan to me. We have a great school district. When leadership makes decision, I am fully behind them. It helps that we don’t have overwhelming numbers of students.
With the potential of new developments and so much information that needs to be shared, each of the coaches have found themselves in position to have more administrative responsibilities and have been communicating with everyone involved almost daily.
“It seems like I have to be constantly sending emails. Keep everyone in the loop. There’s more back and forth between the AD and I. Parents are emailing more. I am constantly going back to find out more information,” Kolankowski explained. “It’s definitely more administrative stuff than what I’ve done in the past. But, it’s been good. Everyone understands. There hasn’t been too much backlash.”
While Wiegand and Hamstra have opted to do some things with their players virtually, Kolankowski has kept his door open to all of his players and parents mostly by phone and email.
“I’ve been in communication with everyone,” Kolankowski said. “If they have questions, I encourage them to reach out. I’ve provided our players with off season workout plan. Some of the kids have gone down on their own to get touches. They’ve been very proactive.
Despite everyone’s best efforts to plan accordingly and work through guidelines, things could still change quickly. Per the PIAA’s Board of Directors statement on Wednesday, Governor Wolf and the Department of Education can still pull the plug on the Fall sports season if things change to the point where there will be too many risks involved.
There are still lots of questions and things that still need to be sorted out from transportation to and from games and practices, to what the schedules will look like as there’s a possibility they’ll only play section games, a possible limit to two games per week and if there will be JV games and other issues that may come to the forefront.
“Unfortunately this is what’s been handed to us,” Wiegand said. “We’ll have to keep safety first. We’ll be proactive and do everything we can to protect ourselves.”
“We can’t live in a bubble. Everything else is not super scary,” Hamstra proclaimed.
“As long as stay vigilant, we can get through this,”