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WPIAL Notebook: Get ready for an unprecedented high school soccer season

WPIAL Notebook: Get ready for an unprecedented high school soccer season

Usually by now, we’re about a week into the high school soccer season.

In the midst of the pandemic, there are still a lot of moving parts, but the good news for high school soccer players and coaches is that they’re back into the swing of things, moving forward with a Fall season in Pennsylvania.

It will be a season like we’ve never seen before. There are still a lot of unanswered questions that are lingering, so now’s a great time for our first edition of the WPIAL notebook to help try to answer some of these.

Playing during a pandemic

High school soccer programs have been preparing for the season since early July, when they got a later-than-usual start to being able to come together to begin team conditioning and off season training sessions.

High school soccer programs return to optional workouts; PIAA remains committed to Fall sports

Then a month-long period of uncertainty followed, as the Governor’s office — along with the Departments of Health and Education — made a strong recommendation against playing high school sports until January 2021 at the earliest.

The PIAA’s Board of Directors needed a couple of weeks to sort everything out, finally announcing on August 21 that they would proceed with Fall sports.

PIAA: Fall sports can begin

Once the PIAA gave the green light for high school sports, most soccer programs spent more time than usual to get conditioning sessions in and only since August 26, they’ve been formally practicing.

“It’s been daunting task, but our kids have answered the bell. There’s been a lot of noise, but we’ve been focused on the day-to-day things and getting the boys ready. We’ve done what we always do, focusing on getting better, as players and as a team,” Rob Eldridge, Head Coach, South Fayette boys soccer coach said.

Who’s Playing?

At this point, it appears that almost every school with a soccer program should be involved in the 2020 season.  Even a few schools that initially opted out, have changed their course.

Ban on Spectators Lifted 

Spectators can now come to high school soccer matches.

On Wednesday, Gov. Tom Wolf lifted his ban on fans at interscholastic athletics. But Wolf kept strict limits on gathering sizes, meaning many stadium seats and gym bleachers might stay empty.

Outdoor events are limited to 250 individuals, and indoor events are allowed no more than 25, according to guidelines updated Wednesday. Athletes, coaches, officials and other game-day workers count against those limits, so for soccer, it should work out for some allotment of fans at the games.

Now, how that gets decided on who can attend will be left to the schools involved.

In its last two home matches, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC have been able to include approximately 100 fans at its games at Highmark Stadium along with the teams, the home club’s personnel and stadium staff as well as a few members of the media.

A few coaches have already mentioned that logistics are still being worked out in terms of what things will look like. There could be potential ‘traveling rosters’ and in order to make things work out for attendance, they may be looking at possibly splitting up attendees at JV and Varsity games.

In addition, most schools are working closely with National Federation of High Schools to install Pixellot systems through the NFHS Network to live stream games.

What will the schedule look like? 

Some coaches have begun to share their schedules with Pittsburgh Soccer Now, as most schools will be playing exclusively an in-section slate.

One coach mentioned to me that it’s will be a lighter schedule, but as the five-and-a-half week season for all teams may not be completely equal.

For some, it’s going to be hectic to say the least.

It won’t be uncommon to see most schools playing three games per week.

For example, here’s West Allegheny boys’ 14-game schedule (note — this includes one scrimmage vs Seneca Valley):

Courtesy WestABoysSoccer Twitter

The WPIAL shared information and this outline on its website for all schools regarding the changes to Fall sports.

In the sport specific information made available, including important dates and scheduling, here’s what’s listed for boys and girls soccer:

  • First Practice Date: August 24, 2020
  • First Scrimmage Aug. 29, 2020; First Competition Sept. 14, 2020
  • Athletic Directors must reschedule any section games currently scheduled prior to September 14, 2020
    to a later date in the season at their discretion.
  • All section games must be completed by October 20, 2020.
  • Strict adherence to schools’ Athletic Health & Safety Plan as well as PIAA’s Return to Competition
    guidelines for Soccer.
  • *New Max Competitions: 16 *New Max Scrimmages: 1
  • WPIAL Championships TBD
  • PIAA Championships TBD

As you can see, the WPIAL and PIAA playoff format for 2020 is still up in the air.

Keeping in mind that if any players test positive from any particular soccer program, they’ll have to quarantine for two weeks.

“It could be a survival of the fittest,” Eldridge said. “It could wipe out the season for some teams.  We could potentially be bundling up games at the end of the season. There’s still a lot of factors in play with COVID-19. I don’t like to have to prepare for the worst, but we have it in the back of our minds.”

The season’s original schedule, had last regular season games being played October 13. Now with it being moved back a week to October 20, it’s uncertain how many teams will be included in the playoff tournament, if there is one. Speaking with Highmark Stadium and Riverhounds officials on Tuesday night, there was no confirmation of dates for WPIAL Championships, originally scheduled for October 29-31.

What do the realigned sections look like in 2020-2021? 

Since the announced realigned classifications and sections were announced in January (see our articles below), there have been a few changes in light of a few school closings (Quigley and Vincentian both closed), addition of Aquinas Academy (were previously co-op with Vincentian) in girls and Uniontown’s change of heart.

UPDATED WPIAL BOYS SOCCER ALIGNMENT (as of August 5, 2020) 

UPDATED WPIAL GIRLS SOCCER ALIGNMENT (as of August 5, 2020)

The following articles provide a bit more of a breakdown in what things will look like.

WPIAL Girls Soccer 2020-21 realignment takeaways

WPIAL Boys Soccer 2020-21 realignment takeaways

What are the rules changes in high school soccer for 2020?  

This past Sunday, WPIAL officials held its annual rules meeting, albeit instead of gathering indoors in school auditorium, they did it via Zoom with all officials and also with coaches.

Believe it or not, there have been 15 rules changes made by the NFHS Soccer Rules Committee at its January 20-22 meeting in Indianapolis and subsequently approved by the NFHS Board of Directors.

Here are some of the rules changes that were outlined on NFHS website:

  • When a ball is caused to go out of bounds due to a simultaneous touch, Rules 9-2-2 and 9-2-3 now stipulate a referee will restart play with a dropped ball to one player of the team that last possessed the ball before going out of play. Previously, simultaneous touch resulted in any number of players contesting a dropped ball to restart play.
  • Additionally, if play is stopped with the ball in the penalty area or the last touch – by either team – was in the penalty area, the ball is dropped to the defending team’s goalkeeper with all opposing players outside the penalty area.
  • A dropped ball is also used when a ball is deemed out of play due to touching an official, remaining on the field and resulting in one of three scenarios. Rule 9-1-1b states that if a ball touches an official and remains on the field, it will be deemed out of play if it 1) creates a promising attack for a team, 2) goes directly into the goal, or, 3) changes possession.
  • Three rules changes to Rule 16 address when players may enter the penalty area and play a ball after a goal kick. The rules now state a ball is in play when it is kicked and moves, at which point opposing players may enter the penalty area and play the ball. Previously, opposing players remained outside the penalty area until the ball cleared the penalty area and the goal kick was retaken if it failed to exit the penalty area.
  • Rule 14-1-3 clarifies goalkeepers’ positions during a penalty kick. Defending goalkeepers shall stand with at least one foot on or in-line with the goal line and the goalkeeper shall not be touching the goal posts, crossbar or nets. Forward movement is allowed provided both feet don’t come off the line until the ball is in play.
  • There is also a new rule that when a player receives a red card, he/she will be suspended for a minimum of two games or longer, depending on the severity of his/her offense.

Also, here’s another nugget: according to the 2018-19 NFHS High School Athletics Participation Survey, soccer is the fifth most popular high school sport for boys with 459,077 participants in 12,552 schools nationwide. Soccer is the fourth most popular sport for girls with 394,105 participants in 12,107 schools.

Concerns with having enough officials? 

Meanwhile, on Monday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported 50 WPIAL soccer officials will not return.

For matches using two officials, that amounts to 25 crews lost.

In the report, Vince Sortino, WPIAL assistant to the executive director, is closely monitoring the situation along with Nick Morea, the male officials representative on the WPIAL board of directors. Sortino told the P-G, that the WPIAL has not received word yet from any schools that don’t have officials to cover games.

“It’s always a concern when you’re losing officials, but I don’t think it’s to the point where it’s a big concern,” Sortino said. “The point is that everyone is working much closer communication-wise. Communication is the most important part of this process.”

Sortino said two factors have had an effect on this shortage.

“The number of officials has been down across the state the past couple years,” Sortino said. “Then this is the year for renewal of clearances for a lot of officials and some of them have chosen not to go through that again. They’re not going through the hassle. On top of that, the COVID hit. We were already lacking officials and now two more things became a reality.”

Officials belong to different chapters around Western Pennsylvania, and an individual from each chapter works with schools and assigns games to officials. Sortino said some of the assigners have asked schools if they would consider possibly moving a football game or soccer match to a different day.

As of now, most coaches that have spoken with Pittsburgh Soccer Now‘s contributors (myself and Ed Rosensteel) have confirmed that the plan is to still have three officials at each match when possible, but there will be some times when there will only be two officials.

Notable Coaching Changes

Bill Pfeifer has moved again. The long-time successful coach — who holds the most wins of any girls soccer coach in Pennsylvania (career record of 441-72-20) — has moved to Central Valley.

Pfeifer most recently helped lead Hopewell to back-to-back section titles. Prior to that, he won multiple WPIAL and PIAA titles at Moon.

Perennial boys 2A title contenders, Quaker Valley boys will have a new coach, J.J. Veshio, who takes over as Andrew Marshall stepped down after guiding the Quakers to two WPIAL and two state titles in five years.

Veshio is a QV grad who’s spent the last few years as an assistant on Marshall’s staff. He takes over a program coming off its ninth WPIAL title and eighth PIAA title.

“It’s the added responsibility of knowing where the program has been forever,” Veshio said. “I have high standards, not just for the program, but for myself. It’s a little bit of added pressure, but that’s not a bad thing.”

Hopewell has handed the keys to its girls soccer program to a longtime youth soccer coach who has some familiarity with teams in Beaver County.

Chet Gapczynski, the co-founder of youth soccer organization FC Pittsburgh and a former head coach at North Allegheny, Central Valley, and Penn State Beaver, was officially hired at Hopewell to replace Pfeifer. Gapczynski takes over for Bill Pfeifer.

Gapczynski is returning to the high school ranks after last coaching at Central Valley during the 2016 season. He was with the Warriors for just one season before the Penn State Beaver job opened up. Gapczynski coached at the Beaver County college for two seasons before stepping down.

Top returning players will have a chance to play in the country’s premier soccer all-star games

The watch list for the 10th High School All-American Game was announced last week. The WPIAL is well-represented, particularly on the girls side with 11 of the 30 nominees from Pennsylvania.

All of the players are seniors. Finalists will be chosen at a later date.

This year’s WPIAL nominees include:

Boys

  • Chad Eldridge, defender, South Fayette
  • Joey Fonagy, forward, Canon-McMillan
  • Cole Kaforey, defender, Franklin Regional
  • Zach Lorenz, midfielder, Franklin Regional
  • Michael Sullivan, forward, Deer Lakes

Girls

  • Lacey Bernick, midfielder, Norwin
  • Jillian Butchki, forward, Belle Vernon
  • Megan Donnelly, forward, Pine-Richland
  • Ellie Coffield, midfielder, Mars
  • Haley Gschrey, forward, Freedom
  • Hannah Henn, forward, Oakland Catholic
  • Kaitlyn Kauffman, forward, Norwin
  • MacKenzie Leeder, midfielder, Mt. Pleasant
  • Lucy Ream, midfielder, Fox Chapel
  • Melissa Riggins, midfielder, Shady Side Academy
  • Sarah Schupansky, forward, North Allegheny

Pittsburgh Soccer Now’s Coverage of WPIAL / PIAA Soccer

Pittsburgh Soccer Now‘s talented team of soccer-knowledgeable contributors are gearing up for the season. We’re meeting this week, and plan to roll out more coverage previewing the season and more details on what we’ll be doing next week.

We’ll also be counting on coaches, players, school officials, team managers and parents to share any game day updates, results and photos with us once the season kicks off, as we continue to plan to post a daily scoreboard and gameday blog each night during the regular season.

We look forward to working with the WPIAL, the teams and athletic directors to provide comprehensive coverage of high school soccer in our region.

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John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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