High school sports officials scramble after Wolf calls for pause

Central York High School football players run drill during summer workouts, Tuesday, July 22, 2020
John A. Pavoncello photo

Thursday marked one of the most frantic and frustrating days in Pennsylvania sports history.

Hours after members of the York-Adams League voted to delay the fall season, Gov. Tom Wolf recommended during a news conference that fall sports be paused until the new year.

"The guidance from us, the recommendation is that we don't do any sports until Jan. 1," Wolf said.

That statement by Wolf forced the state's primary high school athletics governing body, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, into an emergency closed-door board of directors meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes but produced no outcome.

PIAA's board is expected to reconvene Friday and announce its decision, officials said. 

While the PIAA — which just last week voted to move forward with fall sports — met to discuss the state of school sports, Wolf, the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Pennsylvania Department of Education jointly announced a "strong recommendation" that no youth sports be played prior to Jan. 1. In the announcement, school and non-school sports were advised to stop, but pro and college sports could continue.

"Today, Gov. Wolf issued a statement of strongly recommending no interscholastic and recreational sports until Jan. 1," the unsigned PIAA release said. "We are tremendously disappointed in this decision. Our member schools have worked diligently to develop health and safety plans to allow students the safe return to interscholastic athletics."

On Thursday morning, the Y-A League's principals and athletic directors voted 22-1 to push back the original opening of the season into September, followingthe lead of several other leagues around the state. The delays are spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, with which school boards and administrators have struggled in the face of the approaching fall school term. 

Later Thursday, Y-A League Executive Director Chuck Abbott said in an email that Wolf's comments would not change the league's plan to have a fall sports season.

Only officials from Delone Catholic opposed the York-Adams League proposal. 

Delone Catholic athletic director Tim Bonitz said that the choice was made to vote "no" because the original schedule to start practices on Aug. 17 fit better with that school's plan to open with all students in-person.

"It's not that we were against the (delay), we were just in favor of a regular start time as scheduled," Bonitz said in a phone interview. "We fully support the league's decision. These decisions are not easy to make. Ultimately, a regular start date aligned itself philosophically with our school plans for this upcoming school year."

Official football practices would begin  Sept. 4, with heat acclimation starting  Aug. 31, under the league's new schedule, and the first games would be on Sept. 18. No scrimmages are allowed under the decision.

Golf would begin on Sept. 7; tennis would begin on Sept. 9; and all other sports would begin on Sept. 24. All contests for the fall will be league-only games. The schedules for fall sports will be released at a later time, league officials said.

The league's schools still reserve the right to decide if they want to suspend their fall sports seasons. During the meeting, it was revealed that, in response to a survey of the league, multiples schools said they would be in favor of not playing in the fall.

In addition to the right to decide to participate in the fall sports season, schools also must make individual decisions on how to start the school year. The majority of York-Adams League schools have approved in-person plans, with York Suburban, South Western and West York opting for hybrid models.

Eastern goalie Kelsey Felix makes a diving stop on a goal attempt by Madison Rickter of West York, Tuesday, September 24, 2019.
John A. Pavoncello photo

School officials are operating under the belief that hybrid or virtual school plans would allow athletes to continue sports, but Wolf recently said it would be hard to justify contact sports if a school is going completely virtual.

The Y-A League schools' decision followed a pair of organizations from the area that delayed the start of their fall seasons. On Wednesday, the Lancaster-Lebanon League voted 19-6 to push back the start date of most fall sports.

Earlier this week, the Harrisburg-based Mid-Penn Conference announced it was delaying the start of fall sports practices to Sept. 4. The MPC was the first District 3 conference to announce any sort of delay.

Last week, the PIAA voted to allow the start of the fall sports season on time. That vote allowed teams to start official fall sports practices on Aug. 17, with heat acclimation beginning  Aug. 10.

— Reach Rob Rose at rrose@yorkdispatch.com.