By: John Knebels
Photos: Zamani Feelings, Patty Morgan & Mike Nance
Inter-Ac: The school year has officially begun, albeit under unprecedented circumstances.
Some classes meet in person; others are conducted remotely. Masks are worn. Social distancing is in full effect. Temperatures are taken. Sanitation protocols exist on high alert.
Once just fantasy, a Twilight Zone of sorts has become all too real.
Meanwhile, the playing fields that adorn the expansive campuses of the Inter-Academic League institutions remain devoid of competition. While teams will be permitted to cautiously conduct conditioning and practice from September 14 through November 20, competitive fall sports were officially canceled on August 25.
In a reportedly unanimous joint statement among the heads of school and directors of athletics, ongoing health concerns and a desire to follow the strong recommendations by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf overweighed the desire to carefully orchestrate competitive events.
“The Inter-Academic Athletic League members are deeply aware of the importance of athletics to our student-athletes and communities,” the statement read. “This difficult decision was not made lightly, and every effort was made to maintain our fall athletic season. We are deeply saddened that this was not possible.”
However, all dreams have not been dashed.
Providing “permissible conditions,” the Inter-Ac “intends to hold three seven-week seasons for our student-athletes in the new year. Traditional fall, winter and spring sports may be moved due to health concerns, facility availability or weather conditions. Additional information regarding these seasons will be available shortly.”
And so, the athletes and coaches that comprise the six boys’ schools and seven girls’ schools will wait, passionately hoping that gradual scientific advancement – and perhaps access to a vaccine – soon will allow an acceptable setting for traditional competition.
#11 Chris Sims scores a TD in last years Haverford EA Day end of season championship - PSD Photo by Mike Nance
Should the Inter-Ac feel comfortable forging ahead with three seasons of sports, it would begin on January 4 and finish on June 1. The athletic directors have not yet determined any kind of a schedule, nor do they know for certain when each season would begin.
Meanwhile, understandably anxious participants prepare with a combination of caution and eagerness. This goes triple for three-sport athletes such as Haverford School senior Chris Sims.
“I think the seven-week seasons are a good way to put another plan out there after canceling the fall,” said Sims. “Although yes, it is short, I feel as if there is enough time to come together as a team to achieve one goal, and coming together is all that matters.”
Sims had been preparing to play football this fall before taking a brief break to switch to basketball in the winter and then finish his Haverford School experience by running outdoor track in the spring.
Although he probably wouldn’t enjoy much of a respite at any point over a five-month period, Sims enthusiastically welcomes such a challenge.
“It’s going to be tough for everyone,” said Sims. “Everything is going to be moving fast, but adapting is all everyone has been doing the past few months, and I think that all teams and Inter-Ac schools will adapt well. Being a three-sport athlete is going to be tough – I won’t lie about that. I think the main challenge is going to be mentally, but I’m ready for it. I want to take it head on.”
Three-sport athlete senior Lonnie White of Malvern Prep is already committed to play football at Penn State University and still laments the loss of baseball last spring.
Malvern Prep QB Lonnie White, patiently awaits playing his final season of football before moving on to play at Penn State - PSD Photo by Patty Morgan
Though he isn’t complaining about delving into unchartered territory, White anticipates a potentially rocky adventure.
“I never imagined playing football in the spring, and I was really disappointed when I heard the news about the fall,” said White. “However, I am excited that they didn’t cancel the season completely and that I can still salvage some of my senior year.
“I really don’t know what it’s going to look like, but it’s definitely going to feel very different. I’m used to doing my seasons in order. Now with the Inter-Ac trying to do three seasons in six months, it’s going to be very hard for me to do all three. I will be up for the challenge.”
Malvern senior Cole Deery, a two-way lineman in football and a heavyweight in wrestling, feels similarly.
“It would be tough to only play a seven-game season for football and only be able to compete for seven weeks in wrestling,” said Deery. “Football is a tough sport that takes time to get ready for. That means getting in the playbook and practicing as a team, because football is a team sport. For wrestling, there’s a very large mental aspect to the sport. You have to be the toughest dude out there to be great at wrestling.
“After coming to Malvern, I learned a lot from being in such a great wrestling room. In pre-season, our wrestling team was ranked number two in the country. We were ready to go for this year. All I know is, I have full trust in my coaches at Malvern and the Malvern board in their decisions.”
Baldwin School volleyball and basketball senior Anajah Brown doesn’t enjoy the luxury of waiting for another chance should the seven-week strategy not be deployed.
“As a senior, having closure would make me happy,” said Brown. “I do think trying to fit things in such a short period is going to be tough, and I feel as though it’s going to take a lot of patience, especially for basketball. It takes a lot of time to build chemistry with your team after not playing with them for such a long time.
“But I feel if everyone goes into it with the same positive mindset, it should be a great history making experience.”
Last year, Anajah Brown became the second player in Baldwin School history to surpass 1,000 pts. as a junior - Photo courtesy of Baldwin Athletics
Brown’s positive disposition was echoed by an underclassman.
“Well, playing seven weeks is definitely shorter than playing a whole season,” said Germantown Academy volleyball and basketball sophomore Kendall Bennett. “Instead of looking at it as a glass half empty, I would look at it as a glass half full and think that I have to make the best of it.”
Springside Chestnut Hill senior quarterback AJ Graham appreciates the effort of those involved with the planning of the seven-week scenario.
“I’m glad the league is trying to give us a chance to play,” said Graham. “Of course, it’s going to be a lot colder, but I imagine it would be a lot similar to what our regular seasons have looked like. I’ve never played a game in that type of weather, so getting that experience definitely will help me in the long run.”
Germantown Academy freshman soccer and basketball newcomer Isabella Casey never imagined her first taste of high school would ever encompass such a macabre debut.
Springside Chestnut Hill senior QB AJ Graham surpassed the 1,000-yard passing mark last season - PSD Photo by Patty Morgan
In Casey’s case, it’s more than just sports. In fact, given the need to explore the GA environs in search of early social interaction, athletics, while important, are somewhat secondary right now.
“It is pretty disappointing that sports this year have been delayed,” said Casey. “Since I am new to GA, I was really looking forward to meeting people and making new friends on the soccer field and basketball court. I was also really excited to attend the games of our other teams, especially football games, which are a great way to enjoy school spirit and cheer on classmates.
“I think the seven-week seasons will be very challenging for me as a freshman. I think it will obviously take time to get accustomed to the speed of the games and the bigger size of the other players. Obviously, the shortened season will make this adjustment much harder. It will also be harder for teams to gel over such a short season. Teams I have played on usually improve a lot toward the end of the season as we improve our skills, better understand the coach, and learn our roles.
“However, I know I am lucky to have three more years to play and experience high school sports. I really feel sorry for the seniors who will have their final seasons impacted. I am still hoping for a great athletic experience this year that will help me get experience and prepare me for years to come when hopefully we are back to normal.”
Some athletes maintain reservations.
While Penn Charter senior football two-way starter Matt Marshall feels that “(a maximum) seven football games is just not enough for our players, especially the seniors; it’s rough for everyone,” Haverford School football and lacrosse senior Geordy Holmes questions the decision to scrap all fall sports.
“I think it is fair to say that everyone is bummed that we are not playing right now, and I fully believe we should be out there right now,” said Holmes. “I am excited to hear more about how the seven-week season would work, but my only concern would be injuries and fatigue for some of our multi-sport athletes. I know if we get out there, we will not take a second for granted.”
Natalie Pansini, a 2020 Agnes Irwin graduate and lacrosse standout, is now a freshman at Princeton University. Having had her entire season wiped out last spring, Pansini’s insights might help high school players recognize their blessings.
Penn Charter senior running back/safety, Matt Marshall - Photo by Zamani Feelings
“I think that the Inter-Ac is doing the best they can do with the restrictions they have been given,” said Pansini. “Although it isn’t what anyone would have asked for, the seven-week season is a positive compromise.
“Safety is the number-one priority no matter how disappointed the players may be by not having a complete season. I too would be very disappointed. However, given the complete cancellation of our spring season last year, I think this is a major positive for the current players to even be allowed to play at all.”
Athletic directors and coaches completely understand students who want to lace up their cleats and meet the coronavirus like a defensive lineman attempting to deny a touchdown-seeking running back.
Prudence, however, dictated the decision to wait . . . and aspire.
“We are sad that our student-athletes will not be able to compete this fall season against our fellow league members and area non-league schools,” said Baldwin School assistant athletic director and varsity soccer coach Adrian Cox. “Our coaches and athletes are staying positive and communicating weekly to create meaningful practice experiences that develop our athletes physically, mentally and socially.
“Most importantly, Baldwin is committed to ensuring our athletes are having fun together and learning new skills at practices even while adhering to new health and safety protocols. We will be flexible and adapt to the current situation and not let it prevent us from offering a student-centered academic and athletic experience.”
Baldwin is currently planning to hold three practices per week for each upper school team.
“Some public and private schools are not able to do this,” said Cox. “Due to our enrollment and spacious campus and buildings, we can start with live in-person classes and our teams can safely practice in small groups. We are excited to be able to conduct practices and continue to support our athletes, build community and maintain school spirit.”
Episcopal Academy athletic director and football coach Todd Fairlie said that the league is “committed to exploring all scenarios to give our students the best chance to have athletic seasons.”
Springside Chestnut Hill’s David Wilson concurs.
“It was the right decision to postpone the season, but I am disappointed for our students, coaches and parents,” said Wilson. “In true SCH spirit, we will stay positive and I know our coaches and athletes will get the most out of their time together, all staying within the medical guidelines.”