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Mid-Penn makes alterations to its winter sports schedule in response to COVID-19 surge

The (Carlisle) Sentinel (TNS)

The Mid-Penn Conference took its first steps Tuesday afternoon to alter the winter sports schedule as cases of COVID-19 continue to increase sharply across central Pennsylvania.

The conference announced after a scheduled monthly meeting a series of schedule updates for the upcoming 2020-21 basketball, wrestling and swimming seasons.

The new schedule:

►The first preseason practices and tryouts begin Friday.

►The regular season can begin Dec. 18.

►The first division games can begin Jan. 4.

►Teams are capped at playing no more than 18 regular season competitions, down from 22 for basketball.

►There will be no basketball, swimming or diving conference championships this year.

That means no changes to the preseason start, which keeps the current date set by the PIAA before the school year began. But the regular season is now pushed back one week. The decision to push division games into the new year is also interesting, as typically those games begin within the first week of the season.

"Local school boards still have the final say as to whether their school participates," the Mid-Penn's news release reads. "It is the intent of the MPC to begin the winter sports season on the dates above with each school following their Health & Safety plan. The health and safety of our conference schools, student-athletes, staffs and communities are of the utmost importance."

The PIAA meets Wednesday at 2 p.m. for its monthly meeting. The agenda does not list any action or discussion for winter sports, but the meeting will almost certainly include some discussion. However, executive director Dr. Robert Lombardi has stated repeatedly the PIAA intends to start the season on time despite a spike in cases statewide that dwarfs anything previously seen since the pandemic began in March.

"I think it's great that they are planning on starting on time," Carlisle wrestling head coach Joe Wilson said via text. "The kids need this. I believe schools and coaches will do what is needed for the student-athletes to remain safe and get quality competition."

Big Spring girls' basketball head coach Randy Jones said she sees two sides to this decision. The first is that it gives her more time to work with her team after missing much of the offseason. She said she saw her full team for the first time this year Monday. On the flip side, it is a bummer to lose a handful of games.

"I'll be very thankful for any games that we get," Jones said. If we have to wait until Dec. 18 to play our first game, then that's what we have to do."

But the rise in cases does have Jones worried.

"I feel it's evident that everything around us is not getting better," she said. "Pushing it back, does that help anything? I don't know."

Axing the conference championships could provide added scheduling flexibility for teams vying to make the District 3 playoffs, especially if District 3 shrinks the playoff fields like it did for all fall sports.

The PIAA playoffs currently are scheduled to begin March 12 (basketball), March 17 (swimming) and March. 11 (wrestling). District playoffs for those sports typically run from late February to early March, with Mid-Penn championships in early or mid-February.

The structure of winter sports is increasingly under threat, however.

On Tuesday, Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney announced a county wide shutdown beginning Friday that affects indoor dining, gyms, museums and public and private gatherings. The mandate will last until Jan. 1. Philadelphia County reported more than 5,000 cases in the past week as of Tuesday.

More schools are returning to full-time virtual learning in the county as well. What that means for high school sports in the city is unclear at this time.

West of Philly in Reading, Exeter Township School District is discussing returning to full-time virtual learning from Dec. 1 to Jan. 15 and subsequently pausing all athletic and extracurricular activities for the same amount of time. The board meets Tuesday night.

In recent weeks, multiple regular-season football games in the area were canceled due to coronavirus concerns, including Carlisle's season finale.

Harrisburg School District announced Monday it was postponing the start of winter sports indefinitely, similar to the path the district took for fall sports.

Carlisle Area School District announced last week it is going full remote learning through the end of November for all school buildings in the district due to a recent outbreak of cases. Boiling Springs High School will also be closed to in-person classes until Dec. 1 due to its own outbreak of cases.

"Carlisle will not be able to practice until Dec. 1, unless something changes with the shutdown. I know our athletes will be doing stuff on their own at home to make sure we hit the ground running on Dec. 1."

And a handful of District 3 and PIAA playoff games in all sports have been forfeited due to teams having to shut down activities because of cases on their team or within their school districts.