A-L Coach

Allegany-Limestone head football coach Tom Callen.

Slowly but surely, the signs have begun to point back toward this cherished September custom.

They’re leading toward a high school football season.

Across the state border, teams are close to wrapping up their first week of official practice. Athletics directors have begun the wearied, but welcomed process of establishing new, geographically-based schedules. Age-old TH preview trips have already been slated for eight of the 11 such schools.

But that’s only in Pennsylvania.

The scene in New York, barely 10 miles from its neighbor, tells a much different story.

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the vague declaration that NY football teams can “practice, but not play,” beginning Sept. 21, the same date “lower-risk” sports can begin their seasons in earnest. On Thursday, Section 6 Executive Director Timm Slade told the TH that, at this point, the area plans to move forward with fall sports, but that the status of football still isn’t crystal clear.

That’s left coaches, and their players, in the same position they were in June … and July … and even August, when it was announced that schools would be able to reopen in the fall.

In flux. In a state of frustration.

“I DON’T know what Section 6 is going to do, I don’t know if everyone’s going to fall in line,” Allegany-Limestone coach Tom Callen said. “I know the Western New York region is having an uptick in cases, so there’s nothing we can do.

“And how prepared are these kids going to be if we get the green light on the 21st? And who’s going to come out? I don’t know. I hear rumors kids don’t want to play, they don’t want to play that late in the season. We’re not a big enough school to lose three, four kids and say, ‘OK, we’ll just move someone else in.’”

Assessing the size of it, he added: “It’s a bad situation.”

IN NEW YORK, the reasons for optimism continue to be outweighed by the prospects for despair.

Section 8 recently became the first in the state to announce that it’s postponing all scholastic sports until 2021 despite the go-ahead from Cuomo. On Wednesday, the NYS Council of School Superintendents sent a letter to Cuomo, urging the governor to reconsider his permission for a Sept. 21 start on the grounds that athletics “could jeopardize successful resumption of in-person learning for students.”

Slade noted that Section 6 has since received further guidance from the state (for all fall sports), a 23-page document that sectional executive directors will review today before the NYSPHSAA’s COVID-19 Task Force meets next week to “hopefully render a decision on what we’re going to do, and if we’re going to roll it out on Sept. 21.”

“Our plan in Section 6 was to follow those guidelines,” he said, “but we’ll have to wait and see what happens after these meetings coming up here at the state level.”

But the longer it takes to make such decisions, the lesser the chance of the desired outcome, Callen maintained.

“These kids have been doing nothing for so long, to tell them, ‘alright, now it’s time to work hard, for a lot of them, it’s hard to get back into that,” he said. “The longer we let this go and the longer they take — I understand safety is paramount; they have to take that first — but it’s hard to see Pennsylvania move forward and they’re 20 minutes away. It’s hard to see that.

“And we in New York State … I don’t know.”

FOR CALLEN, whose vexation was apparent, the (in some ways) arbitrary nature by which these conclusions were drawn is also part of the problem.

There are, of course, other factors to consider, but you can understand a coach’s frustration if Otto-Eldred, 12 miles down the road, is able to play this fall, but Olean High isn’t. Or if the Port United soccer team can load up the 18-yard box on a corner kick, but volleyball is viewed as too “high-risk.”

“I’m not saying we should be full-contact football, (but) why couldn’t we do 7-on-7, why couldn’t we take those precautions? I don’t know; I really don’t have answers. There’s so much contradictory (viewpoints) …

“Take soccer. As much as people like to say that soccer’s a non-contact sport, if you’ve ever seen a soccer game, those kids are bangin’, they’re going for that ball, and they’re not wearing masks. So, to me, (the trouble is with the) contradictory views on sports.”

He added with a sigh, “At this point, if there’s anything to take from this phone call, it’s just frustration on not knowing what to do. And the more we prolong a final decision, you lose some of these kids; they just don’t want to do it.”

THOUGH THE guidance it received late Thursday wasn’t “sport-specific,” Slade said, it did include some language in regard to “high-risk” sports, mostly as it relates to “social distancing, meaning individual-type drills and (stuff) of that nature.”

“But we’re going to delve into that (on Friday),” he said. “We have to get after it on Friday and then let the COVID-19 Task Force evaluate and hopefully at some point here shortly we’ll have some more information to share.”

Until then, the 11 football-playing Big 30 schools in New York remain in the dark.

And the question, ‘what does Cuomo mean when he says we can practice, but not play,’ still remains largely unanswered.

“That’s what wasn’t detailed in his announcement, and that’s what we’ve been waiting on the section to explain,” Callen noted. “Are they going to let us practice full-on? Because he did say they were going to phase it in; well, what does that mean? Do we wait two weeks and then if there are no cases in soccer and swimming, we’ll be allowed to play? Or does that mean you’re allowed to get a spring practice in where it’s just a couple days a week and you’re going to play in 2021?

“I don’t know. Nobody knows, because nobody’s saying anything. It’s just confusion and frustration.”

(Sam Wilson, Salamanca Press sports editor, contributed to this column. J.P. Butler, Bradford Publishing group sports editor, can be reached at jbutler@oleantimesherald.com)