Local high school student-athletes staged their final official summer workouts in preparation for the fall season Friday.

Football, field hockey, soccer, cross country and girls tennis teams had been practicing for the last month or so under NJSIAA-mandated guidelines in hopes of being able to compete this fall.

"I am so proud of the kids and the effort they put forth over the last five weeks," Middle Township football coach Frank Riggitano wrote on Facebook Thursday. "They have been outstanding. There truly is something to the statement, 'You really don’t miss something until it is gone.' It has been obvious to the coaches that they truly were enjoying something at these workouts that, for a time, had been taken away. ... The kids needed this and the community needs this moving forward!"

The chances of local high schools playing fall sports, especially football, appeared remote just a few weeks ago.

Concerns about the spread of Covid-19 prompted at least 17 states to postpone fall sports until the spring. In Pennsylvania, the PIAA voted 25-5 to go ahead with a fall season while Philadelphia's Catholic and Public Leagues both opted to move football to the spring.

The NJSIAA has been consistent in its push to go forward with an abbreviated fall season through its "Return to Sports Guidelines," though at least 10 school districts have opted out. New Egypt High School initially informed the West Jersey Football League that it was postponing football, but changed its mind earlier this week, according to WJFL President Derryk Sellers.

Every high school in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean Counties is planning on playing.

"I honestly thought we were dead in the water a month ago," Lower Cape May Regional football coach Lance Bailey said Tuesday. "But now I think we have a very good chance of playing this season. Everyone has been diligent about following the regulations and protocols."

Judging by what I witnessed earlier this week, Lower Cape May has been a stickler for the regulations.

While Bailey and defensive coordinator Billy Damiana conducted Tuesday's early-morning workout, individual water bottles and backpacks were spaced out six feet apart against a fence. A nearby shed contained a spray pump filled with disinfectant used to sterilize footballs and sleds for the football team and plastic cones for the field hockey team.

Each morning, student-athletes were required to fill out a 10-question form on Google Docs that listed potential symptoms for Covid-19.

"If the kids have headache or sore throat or whatever, they text me in the morning and let me know they're aren't coming to practice," Bailey said. "I have two starters sitting home right now with allergies, but we just wanted to be safe. They know if they want to play, they have to stay away."

According to Lower athletic trainer Frank Zolnick, there have been no positive tests from athletes in any fall sport, but approximately a dozen have sat out for a day or two as a precaution.

Even the cheerleaders have been adhering to strict protocols. While the football team was practicing, a dozen cheerleaders who were spaced six feet apart were working on their halftime routine on the track that encircles the football field, sans pompoms.

"When we do use them, we sanitize them," Lower cheerleader coach Barb Kimsey said. "We're hoping we're going to be allowed to have up to 500 fans in the stands. But we've told the girls to be prepared regardless. They'll be cheering even if it's just me sitting in the stands."

(Update: The NJSIAA announced Friday that high school sports are included in the state mandate that allows outdoor public gatherings of up to 500 people.)

Now comes the biggest challenge.

With schools scheduled to open on Sept. 8, those student-athletes who are not part of a virtual learning program will be in classrooms with students who have not been required to go through daily protocols during the summer. Precautions are going to be in place - desks will be six feet apart, only a percentage of students will be allowed to attend at a given time, students and teachers will be wearing masks - but there most certainly will be an increased risk.

I thought the fall sports season should have been moved to early spring of 2021, much like some other states are doing.

The scenario that made the most sense to me was to hold shortened seasons for all sports. Basketball, wrestling, swimmer and other winter sports would be played in January and February. Football, soccer and the fall sports would take place in March and April. Baseball, softball, lacrosse would be conducted in May and June.
Evidently, the NJSIAA and other state officials have been encouraged enough to proceed as planned.

"We've started the drive from our own 1 (yard line)," Sellers wrote on Twitter Friday. "We have driven the field!! Next two weeks we are in the RED ZONE. Let's not do ANYTHING to jeopardize the scoring opportunity in front of us. Athletes, parents, coaches, athletic directors, officials play YOUR role!"

Hopefully, they'll be able to reach the end zone without a delay of game penalty.

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