The “Return to Play” blueprint for the fall season recently released by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) pushes back the high school sports season. It calls for the start of games on Thursday, Oct. 1 (girls tennis on Sept. 28), with the season concluding Thanksgiving weekend.
Some members of the community are not happy with the decision. They are afraid that the delay is a pacifier and a prelude to fall sports being canceled altogether.
Chuck Fantasia of Newton is a longtime football coach in town. His son Aaron is an All State Group 2 football player entering his senior year at Newton High School. He has a Division 1 offer to play at Marist College.
“I’m not a fan of the plan,” Fantasia said. “Pushing the season back a month is kicking the can down the road. If anything, start early and end early, before flu season and possible second COVID wave, or swap fall and spring seasons. I know there are obstacles to that idea and naysayers, but we need more ‘can do’ thinking rather than ‘this can’t work.’ The kids need to play.”
The delay is also not sitting well with Dr. Gary Renshaw of Oak Ridge, who has two children at Pope John High School and one at Jefferson High.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “Part of the high school experience and learning is sports that help kids stay active and interact with their peers. They need their sports now even more especially having lost the spring season.”
Simon Hamilton is a longtime soccer coach in the Newton/Kittatinny area and the parent of an incoming sophomore athlete at Newton High School.
“I’m of the opinion that, in general, there is no need for draconian measures to be imposed on non at risk groups,” he said. “Pushing back the opening of fall sports is completely unnecessary and actually is a disservice to our youth. Time to get back to play and back to the classroom.“
Ashley Espinosa will be a senior at Kittatinny Regional High School and is the girls’ varsity cross country captain.
“I’m disappointed by the fact that I’ll be missing many of the meets that are usually scheduled in September,” she said. “I was really hoping to do these meets one final time as a senior, and see my improvement over the course of my high school cross country career. September helps us runners to really see where each of our skill levels are at. It’s also a real shame that our new runners will be missing out on the experience of attending these meets.”
Espinosa is hoping for a return to school in the fall so she can make the best out of her senior year.
“However, as of now, I think we will return to school with remote learning,” she said. “I hope this is not the case, because I believe as a senior it will be very difficult to prepare for college.”
Daryl Jones, the athletic director at Wallkill Valley Regional High School in Hamburg, said the NJSIAA and Conferences have had to make many tough decisions, with so many unknowns involved, since the spring. “In my opinion, the NJSIAA leadership has done a great job of creating a COVID task force made up of doctors, athletic directors, health officials and school administrators to help guide in the decision making process,” he said. “I truly feel that they want to make the fall season happen. We were all disappointed for our student-athletes when the spring season was canceled. I feel the main reason for pushing back the start date for fall practices and games is due to the questions surrounding how we are going to be opening schools and instruction in September. It gives everyone time to adjust to the ‘new normal.’”
Wallkill Valley started summer training on July 20 following the NJSIAA guidelines for Phase 1, including daily pre-screening and temperature checks for coaches and players. A number of social distancing requirements and restrictions on the use of equipment are built into these guidelines as well.
“My fear is the NJSIAA’s decision to push back fall sports a month is just delaying the inevitable,” said George Muha, president of Morris Sussex Sports. “But based on conversations with school administrators, that decision was more based on there are still quite a few New Jersey schools that aren’t prepared at the moment to start as scheduled from a health protocol standpoint. I believe the NJSIAA task force made this decision to push back sports a month now instead of scrambling in September if some schools aren’t prepared to open, and high school sports can’t happen if high schools are not open.”
There’s not a superintendent, principal, athletic director or athlete he’s spoken to that doesn’t want fall sports to happen, he said. “Programs are doing a fantastic job following the published guidelines to ensure they follow it to the letter,” he said. “If the NJSIAA or governors office make even tighter guidelines, teams will follow them. They’ll do anything to ensure they can have some semblance of a season.”
Muha believes the pandemic has brought to light how important school and athletics are from a mental health and wellness standpoint.
“School administrators and coaches I’ve spoken to share that sentiment that not moving forward with school and sports could have an array of unintended consequences that negatively impact our community’s youth,” he said. “The camaraderie, physical fitness, sense of purpose and pride that sports brings to these young people cannot be discounted. The youth of our communities are the most important part of our community. We should be removing barriers at all costs to ensure they are our first priority in our recovery from this pandemic.”
Sabrina Lucas is a well-known area cross country and track coach. She and other coaches feel that cross country, a fall sport that facilitates distance and no contact, should be put in a different category. “I think that cross country is an exception but having invitationals (which involve multiple schools ) would be questionable,” she said.
‘No school, no sports’
Part of the NJSIAA’s plan also includes taking a two-week break, from Aug. 29 to Sept. 13, from summer practice so that students can focus solely on returning to school -- whatever that will mean -- and academics.
“High school sports are school-based, so we need to first ensure all is in order with the opening of our schools,” said Colleen Maguire, NJSIAA chief operating officer said in a press release issued last Friday. “After that, we can begin playing sports. To be clear, our goal is to return to play – while making sure that health, safety, emotional well-being, and academics come first. We have a different model than some other types of programs that are far smaller in scale and operate independently. We have a duty to ensure that New Jersey’s schools and their more than 1.5 million students and teachers, including 283,000 high school student-athletes, can first return to school and their academics, and then participate in extracurricular activities like sports.”
Phase 1 of the summer workout period, with limited contact and small groups, opened last week at most schools with daily COVID waivers, temperature taking and social distancing. Masks are required when athletes are not socially distant from one another and coaches must wear masks for the duration of the practice.
Former Sussex County Freeholder Carl Lazzaro feels the school year needs to be squared away before any games, matches or races can occur. “The fact of the matter is, no school no sports. NJSIAA rules,” he said.
He added, “Everyone seems to be bowing to Governor Murphy, and I guarantee he is doing this to see how much control he can get over the populace. How about this: Let’s fine people who get sick and don’t stay home. Why punish the healthy population that is okay? What ever happened to people taking care of themselves? Sick? Stay home. Need care? Go to the hospital. Stay out of the public just like you would if you had chicken pox or flu.”
Muha said he doesn’t envy the governor and NJSIAA during this complicated time.
“New Jersey’s citizens have shown how resilient they can be from being the number one COVID-19 hot-spot in the country to leading the way in safely reopening,” he said. “If our state can do that, reopening schools and playing outdoor sports should be a cakewalk.”
“I was really hoping to do these meets one final time as a senior, and see my improvement over the course of my high school cross country career. September helps us runners to really see where each of our skill levels are at. It’s also a real shame that our new runners will be missing out on the experience of attending these meets.” --Ashley Espinosa