As NY high schoolers wait out COVID, Pennsylvania football is underway, but issues remain
On this Friday night in the Pennsylvania borough of Blossburg, Troy senior Caleb Binford ran for 201 yards and three touchdowns to spearhead the Trojans' 34-21 comeback victory against North Penn-Mansfield in a Northern Tier League football game at Island Park.
But even as the usual sound of cars and semis zoomed past high above on Route 15, the Panthers' home opener on Sept. 25 was anything but normal, with reminders of the pandemic impossible to miss even as the action on the field was what we have come to expect.
The stadium was limited to 250 people, including those on the field, and the home stands were reserved for the Southern Tioga School District marching band and essential game personnel.
While the home team's fans were spread out on the perimeter of the field, visiting fans were watching from home via live stream — a Northern Tier League rule this fall. Hot dogs and popcorn were a no-go because the concession stand was closed as a safety measure.
"At the beginning of the season we weren't sure how it was going to work out, but the community kind of came together and we were able to play as long as we took all the safety precautions and all the kids are really happy," said Chris Fabian, of Morris, Pennsylvania, a former football player at North Penn who is the father of North Penn-Mansfield junior Cameron Fabian.
But the action south of the border was far different than what's happening in the Southern Tier of New York, where all sports teams that belong to Section 4 of the state's public school organization have been barred from competing while the schools continue to try to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Instead, fields, stadiums and courts have gone dark , although some districts and teams are organizing workouts and other get-togethers to stay active.
Football teams and other fall sports athletes now must look ahead to March 1, which is now the scheduled start to a sports season that never got off the ground in 2020. Winter sports are targeted for a Jan. 4 beginning.
Not all smooth sailing
As excited as many have been to have football back in Pennsylvania, there have been stumbling blocks in the state's Northern Tier, which includes some teams being forced off the field.
Canton canceled a scheduled game against Athens on Sept. 18 and announced the next day the district learned one of its football players tested positive for COVID-19. In addition, at least one parent of a team member also tested positive.
The school district shut down in-person classes until Oct. 13 following a positive COVID test for a school staff member a few days later. On Sept. 27 it was announced another staff member tested positive. Athletics are scheduled to resume Oct. 10 and Canton's game against Athens has been rescheduled for Oct. 12.
Less than a week after Troy's victory against North Penn-Mansfield, the Trojans had their season interrupted when the Troy Area School District made the decision to close until Oct. 19 and go to remote learning. That choice also shuts down interscholastic sports.
"Bradford County is now listed as a moderate transmission county and the rise in positive COVID cases is a county-wide concern," Troy Superintendent Eric Stair wrote in a letter that appeared on the school's website. "Please continue to maintain social distancing and masking while out of school to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. We all need to work together on promoting this in order to keep everyone healthy."
A scheduled game between Towanda and Athens on Oct. 2 was postponed just hours before kickoff. Towanda Superintendent Dennis Peachey and Athens Superintendent Craig Stage released a joint statement that didn't cite any specific cases, but both of those boroughs are also in Bradford County.
Even when football is being played in the Northern Tier, the scene is certainly different. Outside of players and game officials during competition, most in the Blossburg stadium on Sept. 25 were masked, including cheerleaders. A small price to pay for a football Friday.
"It's definitely a big uptake for the community because we get to play football and we're lucky to have it," Chris Fabian said through his face mask. "Everybody's taking precautions and following the rules the best we can and we're lucky to be here tonight. ... With everything going on and the way things are falling, a lot of schools aren't playing."
In Section 4, it's about inactivity
On what under normal circumstances would have been a bustling evening of football in and around Broome County, parking lots were virtually empty, sound systems silent, fields mostly devoid of teenagers and the mood and feel just plain grim.
Oct. 2 at Union-Endicott, no marching band members gussied up, assembled, tuned up and prepared to enter Ty Cobb Stadium at their appointed time.
Instead? At a time the Tigers and an opponent might have been out in full force, stretching, executing plays they’d employ for the night and generally pumping themselves up for the first game of October, five teenagers wrapped up a workout and departed the premises in their vehicles about 6:20.
Four fitness enthusiasts alternated jogging and walking around the 400 meters of Mike Miller Track in pairs. The lone visible occupant of the home bleachers was a scraggly, twitchy squirrel scurrying from step to step, scavenging for supper.
Nowhere to be seen or heard was that four-wheel utility vehicle whizzing about here and there with the one and only Shorty Bowen at the controls.
Across the Susquehanna River, Vestal's Dick Hoover Stadium was vacant but for a lone jogger on a night custom-made for high school football— mid-50s temperatures, tiny breeze barely affecting passes and kicks and the like.
A bit to the east and in fading daylight, the view up top Reynolds Road in Johnson City looking south was sweet as can be, only, somehow not the same absent the aroma of burgers and so forth being prepared in the concession stand. Especially enticing on an ordinary autumn night are scents the closer one traverses to the west end zone. A lone jogger occupied Lane 8 as he got his workout in.
In Binghamton, Alumni Stadium is ordinarily so much about the audio element. But not on a silent Friday.
Gates were shuttered, the brightest lights partially illuminating fieldhouse facilities at opposite end of the field. Noticeably missing were occasional blasts from the horns of truckers on Interstate 81 up the steep, grassy hill from the playing surface.
The next day, Oct. 3, thousands in Chemung County would have headed to Ernie Davis Academy – named for the legendary Heisman Trophy winner from Elmira – to see the powerhouse Elmira team take on rival Horseheads. The Blue Raiders' bid to beat the Express for the first time ever will have to wait.
Regardless of venue, nowhere on the high school front has been heard veteran referee Dave Barnard as he zips in upon completion of a play to instruct players in the scrum or pile, “Walk away! Walk away! Walk away!” His signature screams High School Football in these parts.
Tough to be away from football
Waverly High School was supposed to join the rest of New York state in opening its season Sept. 11 at Waverly Memorial Stadium. On the schedule that night for the Wolverines was 2018 and 2019 Class C state champion Susquehanna Valley. That type of showdown between two of Section 4's top programs would have helped get the season off and running in a hurry.
Instead, veteran Waverly head coach Jason Miller headed just over the border to help film Athens' game against visiting Sayre. Kevin Gorman, a former first-team all-state running back for Miller at Waverly, is the head coach at Sayre.
Miller has missed football himself and also feels bad for the players who are missing out, which played into his decision to take in a game that night.
"It was absolutely enjoyable," Miller said of the Athens/Sayre clash. "It was so refreshing to watching the game. Of course, I had a pretty good angle of it and view it. ... I knew the teams, it was fun to watch."
Even so, Miller would have rather been coaching his own players that night.
"I'm glad to see them get a chance and certainly don't hold any ill will toward any of them that they get that chance," he said of the Athens and Sayre players. "But I do feel bad for our kids because they watched either from outside the fence ... I think one of our players actually got in the game and was able to watch from the stands. Everybody else had to watch it either from online or outside the fence, which is a strange thing."