Central Pa. school district has 10 coaches, assistant AD opt out because of pandemic

JAKE ADAMS
The (Carlisle) Sentinel (TNS)
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The same day that winter sports practices resumed across much of Pennsylvania on Monday, a central Pennsylvania school district officially announced that some coaches have opted out in girls' basketball, swimming and bocce ball for the 2020-21 season.

At South Middleton School District, longtime swimming coach Matt Brenner, second-year girls' basketball coach Brett Sheaffer, bocce co-head coaches Katie Suwala and Lauren Bozert and their assistant coaching staffs — a total of 10 coaches, plus assistant athletic director Marisa Elliot — elected to take an opt-out option for this season. They opted out because of concerns, both personal and professional, for the safety of themselves, their families, players and the community during the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to rage across the country and in Cumberland County. Boiling Springs is the high school that serves South Middleton School District.

The school board approved, 7-2, the opt-outs and subsequent hire of a handful of interim coaches during Monday night's meeting.

"I have talked personally to several of our coaches who decided to opt out, it tears them up deeply inside because they live to be coaches, they live for the sport that they've dedicated themselves to for ... many years, with accolades and with everything else that goes along with it," board member Jonathan Still said.

On the same night the board and Superintendent Dr. Matt Strine said they are continuing with the plan to reopen the district to a hybrid learning schedule Jan. 11, Strine and board member Elizabeth Knouse both said all those that opted out will be welcomed back when they feel safe to return.

"To be clear on that, we asked people if you wanted to opt out," Knouse said. "That was our plan, that was not something that was just made up by the coaches on their own. We offered that option and asked people to think clearly."

The district is hurrying to fill the vacancies for this season and get the teams back to practice.

The Boiling Springs varsity girls' basketball and swimming teams already have temporary head coaches in place as of Monday night. Strine said all four major winter sports — boys' and girls' basketball, swimming and wrestling — have at least one fully certified coach in place to run practices immediately, including the necessary background and employment checks.

"I respect their decision to choose not to coach," Strine said. "That's a hard decision. I know that many were teary eyed in talking to their players and athletes. That's not something that I take lightly, and I do want them back when they can come back. Hopefully that's sooner than later, but that depends on the pandemic."

The agenda did not list temporary coaches for the unified bocce team.

What's next: Mike Zito will serve as the 2021 girls' basketball head coach, and Jeff Kiminski takes over the swimming teams for this season.

According to the board's documents, there are still vacancies to fill for assistant swim and dive coaches as well as two open bocce ball positions. The girls' basketball head JV, head junior high, and assistant varsity and junior high positions were all filled.

Strine said the district has multiple coaches that need to pass background checks and complete required training courses on CPR, concussions and more.

According to district solicitor Gareth Pahowka, any coach that completes and passes their three criminal background checks and employment background check can begin working with students right away, even if they haven't completed all of the coaching training. Those courses can be completed later, but the district is working with the interim coaches to finish those as quickly as possible.

Those coaching candidates still awaiting approval on their background checks cannot work with the athletes.

Wrestling and boys basketball were able to begin practice Monday as planned. Neither the board nor Strine said if any of the other teams practiced Monday.

Because Boiling Springs teams don't have any preseason practices in already, they must complete 10 before their first regular-season competition, under PIAA rules for this season only passed Dec. 22. That means the first potential date for games is Jan. 15.

Reasons: Brenner and Sheaffer spoke to The Sentinel on Monday afternoon. Both coaches had different reasons for their decisions and said their coaching staffs also had their own reasons.

Brenner was not comfortable with trying to hold an indoor sports season during the pandemic. Brenner, who has coached for 32 years, is also the boys' soccer head coach.

"I witnessed first-hand the challenges to safeguard our team outside," he said. "With all winter sports moving to indoor venues I knew these challenges would increase. I did not feel I could guarantee my athletes' safety, so while easily the most difficult decision I've had to make as a coach in the past 32 seasons, I felt that this is the right thing to do — was to opt out of the winter season."

Sheaffer shares similar concerns. But most important to him was the health and safety of several family members.

"For me personally, the decision came down to I am a primary or secondary caregiver for three people who are considered high-risk," he said. "And their health is very important to me, the No. 1 deciding factor in all this."

"It's not something that I took lightly or our staff took lightly," he said later. "And it was tough, first time in 25 years I won't be part of a basketball program, coaching or playing. It's not something that I wanted to do."

Elliot said in a text exchange during the board meeting she came to the decision separate from the coaches.

"I opted out for the athletes, coaches, community members, and my family and [my] safety," she said, adding it was "not an easy decision by any means."

Tony Verenna is listed as assistant athletic director under third-year AD Karl Heimbach. Elliot said she'd be "happy to help Karl out from home if needed."

Timeline: The coaches did not come to this decision quickly or on a whim. In most, if not all, cases, it was a weekslong process.

While no final decision was made until recently, Brenner said discussions began Dec. 3 when his coaching staff asked the administration questions about various concerns for the upcoming season. Strine sent an email Dec. 21 saying a decision on the season would be made Jan. 1.

"At this point I know a lot of the coaches were in limbo, 'What does this look like? What's going to happen?'" Brenner said.

Brenner was particularly concerned after coaching through a fall season in which four Boiling Springs teams shut down at different times because of virus concerns.

"To me, that was not a successful fall campaign, if you will," he said.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced Dec. 30 the state's emergency mitigations orders would expire as scheduled Monday morning. But by 3 p.m. Friday, Brenner and other coaches had not heard from the school district.

"At that point we felt strongly that it was in our families', our athletes' and their families' and our communities' best interest to opt out of coaching this season," he said.

Each coaching staff came to their conclusions separately, but during their deliberations there was an understanding swimming, bocce and girls basketball shared similar concerns.

The group of coaches sent an email to the administration announcing their intent to opt out for the winter season that day. On Saturday, Brenner and his staff spoke to the swimmers and parents, as did Sheaffer and his staff.

"We thought it was very important to let them know what our reasons were and that we didn't feel comfortable having this season and going forward from here given the current circumstances," Brenner said.

That forced Strine, Heimbach and the district to hustle to find replacements so the players could still have a season, one that has already been condensed several weeks due to the pandemic.

Reaction: Sheaffer said he got mixed reactions, but people "understand everyone has to make their own choices during this difficult time, and that they respect that choice."

He told his players to not feel guilty about wanting to play or not wanting to play. Each of them can make the choice on their own, and the coaches' choices are not the players' fault.

"It obviously was a difficult conversation," Sheaffer said. "I told them it's OK to be upset or mad at the situation, and I just said in generalities. I said adults in general have put kids in these situations, and they shouldn't feel guilty about [whether they want to play or not]."

Brenner also told his swimmers and divers to respect each other's decisions and to make sure they came to those decisions on their own.

"To be honest with you, I was so concerned and worried about telling kids you coached for ... [many, many years]," he said. "That was the hardest thing I had to do with this whole thing, to make the decision and also tell them like, 'Hey, I'm sorry, but I don't feel comfortable going forward with this season.' A credit to them, they understood and a bunch of them reached out to me — texted me, emailed me, called me."