Play ball? Fall sports (well, most of them) get the green light for 2020

Gov. Murphy and the NJSIAA gave scholastic sports the go-ahead last week. Are area coaches confident the games will return?

The high school football season is set to kick off on Oct. 2. “We have to continue to do what they’re supposed to do, kids have to stop having wild parties and all of that stuff, let’s make sure we do our part,” said Derryk Sellers, president of the West Jersey Football League. “Let’s not make it so we sabotage ourselves. Sacrifice for a few months so you can have those next few months of glory.” (MIKE MONOSTRA/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

The penultimate week of August was a pivotal week for the potential of high schools sports returning in 2020.

Within the span of four days, Gov. Phil Murphy gave his endorsement in a press conference – while leaving the decision in the hands of the NJSIAA – and then the NJSIAA, the governing body for scholastic sports in New Jersey, literally tweeted that it was “game on,” mapping out the current plan on the social media site.

In between, Derryk Sellers took part in an interview with a local television station.

“They cut out the part where I was pulling the mask out of my pocket,” Sellers said.

Sellers, the president of the West Jersey Football League, was only half joking. As the man in charge of the organization that plans out the season for all of South Jersey’s high school football teams, Sellers wanted to continue to send the message he’s been preaching for months: the pandemic isn’t over and if people want sports to return, as they’re scheduled to on Oct. 1, they need to adhere to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines.

“There are going to be some difficult days ahead, but we have to remain positive and be sure that everyone is doing their part,” said Sellers, who is also the longtime athletic director at Lindenwold High School. 

“I can’t say that enough,” he continued. “We have to make sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to do. …  We all have to remain diligent and do our part, and that means social distancing, no big parties. We’re all one team, and if everyone does their role, it’ll work out. I’ve just been getting in the car and driving by schools (to see). The kids are doing what they’re supposed to do. The kids are complying. 

“But all of this stuff people are putting on social media, how passionate they are, how much they want the game, if they want the game, these are the steps that we have to take.”

Bishop Eustace’s Julia Faiola and Washington Township’s Claudia Milano battle for a loose ball in a game last season. The 2020 field hockey season is slated to begin on Oct. 1. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Bill Mulvihill knows what’s at stake. 

Mulvihill has been the softball coach at Moorestown High School for 14 years and is entering his 24th season as the girls soccer coach. Last March, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and eventually wiped out the spring season, he saw plenty of broken hearts among his players, including senior center fielder Erika Heffernen, one of just two players in program history to reach 100 career hits. 

Heffernen entered the 2020 season just six hits away from breaking the school record. But she never got the chance to play a single game in her senior year.

“It was disappointing to say the least,” Mulvihill said.

Perhaps a spring he termed as “devastating” has helped change perspectives as student athletes prepare for an uncertain fall.

“I think they’re optimistic,” Mulvhill said of his soccer team. “The good thing is I don’t think they’re going to get too high until it happens. Most of my players played sports in the spring, so they already had the disappointment. This is absolutely unchartered territory, not getting the chance to play in the spring. We understood it, but we weren’t happy. But we understand the more this goes on the harder it is to get a grasp on it. It makes you wonder, how much longer is this going to be like this?”

According to the NJSIAA Sports Advisory Task Force’s return-to-sports plan, outdoor falls sports can begin practices on Sept. 14 and games will begin on Oct. 1 (with the exception of girls tennis, which is set to begin on Sept. 28). 

Sellers said football in 2020 will include a six-game regular season followed by a postseason when teams will be set off into groups of four to play a mini tournament, with each of these pools potentially named after former longtime South Jersey coaching legends. (A team could end its season as the “Larry Mauriello Tournament Champion,” for example).

Cinnaminson’s Owen Ogden and Paul VI’s Chris Taylor in action during a game last season. Teams can begin practicing on Sept. 14, two weeks before the start of the 2020 fall season. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

The sports that the NJSIAA’s plan affects the most are the fall indoor sports, girls volleyball and gymnastics. They are currently scheduled to take place in a new season – in between winter and spring – that would begin on March 3. 

Officials are trying to put a plan in place for the spring, too, that would allow for athletes that play multiple sports to continue to do so. Williamstown’s McKenzie Melvin, for example, was a crucial member of her team’s state championship volleyball team in 2019 but will play softball in college.

“It’d be really unfair to put her in a position where she’d have to pick between the two sports,” Williamstown volleyball coach Chris Sheppard said.

Like most coaches throughout the area, Sheppard, who has followed the coronavirus statistics the state releases religiously this summer, was tuned into Gov. Murphy’s press conference. 

“I was very optimistic, everything was great,” he said. “But I didn’t see the last sentence, where he said he felt indoor sports shouldn’t be played.”

Three days later, his fall indoor season got pushed back by six months. Given the events of the spring, a delayed season with no state championships contested (all seasons will be truncated) is better than no season at all.

“We’re geared up to try to win the last game, whatever level that is at,” Sheppard said. “If it’s at the sectional level, then the goal is to try to win that. 

“We graduated four seniors but we’re bringing back a solid group and a lot of young kids saw what we did and are excited with the opportunity to see what they can do. If all of a sudden the whole season was pulled off the table, yeah, that would be very disappointing.”

Williamstown volleyball will have to wait until 2021 for its next season — and for the opportunity, a year from now, to make a run at defending it’s Group 4 state title. (MIKE MONOSTRA/South Jersey Sports Weekly)