Mario Patrizi patrolled the middle of the field on a pristine early autumn afternoon with his assistant coaches, preparing for his 15th year as Cinnaminson High School’s football coach.
First-year quarterback Conlan Holt got his left arm loose with a dozen or so tight spirals before running through a drill. Junior Colin Kind showed off a sturdy leg in kicking several extra-point attempts.
The end of September was only a week away and, like others in New Jersey, Cinnaminson had yet to play a game as high school sports transitioned back into action amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Pirates can only pray they’ll have more than one game under their belts in the next month.
Unfortunately for Cinnaminson, the forecast looks a little cloudy.
In the first half of the Pirates’ six-game regular season schedule, the team had matchups scheduled with Delran (Oct. 2) and Burlington City (Oct. 16).
But the latter is no more, after Monday’s cancellation of fall sports by the Burlington City Board of Education.
Delran’s football team, meanwhile, isn’t practicing like its Week 1 opponent this week. The program is in the middle of a COVID quarantine period, with the tentative plan of returning to the field on Tuesday for a few days of practice before its game with the Pirates.
But there’s also this: per NJSIAA rules, Delran, like every other member school, took a mandatory two-week break from practices from Sept. 1 to Sept. 14. Do the math and the Bears will take the field on Oct. 2 having practiced just six times in the last month.
“They’re going to play,” Patrizi said last Wednesday after talking with Delran’s coach. “They have three days in already, and (this week) they’ll have another three before the game.”
The return of high school sports is surely refreshing. It’s nice for some semblance of normalcy following seven months of disappointment and frustration. But, realistically, the uncertainty moving forward remains as COVID is still very much alive and well.
“You just have to go with it and be flexible,” Patrizi said. “I think everybody is in the same boat. Flexibility is the key. Obviously the safety and welfare of the kids and coaches is key. So I think everybody is on the same page.”
Delran wasn’t alone in having to shut down one of its sports teams. Within the Sun coverage area — which includes about 30 high schools in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties — at least three schools were barely able to get through a week of practice without shutting a team or multiple teams down due to COVID.
On Wednesday, the Lenape Regional High School District announced that the Lenape High School football team would be shut down for 14 days after two positive COVID tests. The Indians’ season-opening game with district rival Cherokee was postponed as a result and Lenape, much like the above scenario with Delran, will tentatively take the field in Week 2 with just a handful of practices within the last month.
Later on Wednesday night, fellow Olympic Conference member school Washington Township announced that all team practices would be suspended for four days (until Sept. 28), that the varsity and JV football teams would be sidelined until Oct. 2, and that the football season-opener with Eastern was postponed.
The plan moving forward for the Minutemen football program is to instead open the season on Saturday, Oct. 10, at home against Shawnee.
“So if we get back on Friday, we’ll have seven practices,” said Kevin Murphy, Washington Township’s athletic director.
Murphy, who is in his 19th year in that role, understands the troubles presented not only by the uncertainty of COVID, but by the long layoffs between practices and jumping into games.
“As athletic administrators, we have to be smart,” he said Wednesday night. “In our case, we’re fortunate enough that it breaks well. We’ve already had nine days of practice and are able to come back and have seven more practices before we play Shawnee. That’s probably the best-case scenario. Because you do need to re-acclimate your athletes to being back out there, in any sport, getting up and down on the field competing with each other before playing anybody else.”
Murphy said coaches will continue to work with athletes virtually during the two-week quarantine.
“For the majority of our kids, they’re healthy and can work out in their homes and can stay mentally sharp with the virtual meetings and physically sharp with their home workouts,” Murphy said.
The proverbial elephant in those Zoom meeting rooms can’t be ignored, though.
In order for the high-school sports schedule to continue, uninterrupted, from early October through the end of the fall season, South Jersey coaches and administrators will have to put their trust in the teenagers playing the sports. One person’s decision to have a party with a couple of dozen people not wearing masks and social distancing could spoil the entire sport, especially if an athlete who made a bad decision takes the field and potentially spreads COVID to another team.
But Murphy and every other athletic director in South Jersey are obviously being extremely careful and taking a measured approach to ensure everyone’s safety, thus the current quarantines at Washington Township, Lenape and Delran.
“Even talking to the other coaches, it’s been, ‘I want to get to next Friday,’” Patrizi said. “Because you never know what’s going to happen the week after. It looks good on paper, but it might not happen.
“So you have to take the best of the best and do what you can do. It’s day by day.”
“We live hour to hour,” Murphy said. “Or now, it’s 20 minutes to 20 minutes.”
No matter the timeline, the teams that do kick off the 2020-21 high school sports schedule next week can only hope they can have what they missed out on last spring: a season.