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Cooney: Lower Merion, Cheltenham, entire PIAA tournament in limbo due to coronavirus

03/11/2020, 10:15pm EDT
By Kevin Cooney

Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer (above) still doesn't know where his Aces will play Thursday night. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Kevin Cooney (@KevinCooney)

The conversation was brief. After all, Gregg Downer still has a basketball game on Thursday to prepare his Lower Merion team for –– even if nobody could say for certain where in the world that contest will take place.

It didn’t take long to figure out that Downer’s patience was wearing a little bit thin.

“The AD is just coming in and out of the gym with news every ten minutes about where we’re going to play,” the veteran head coach of the Aces said. “I don’t know where we’re going. … I guess we’re being viewed as an exposure [risk].”

Normally, March in Pennsylvania basketball brings on-court drama. On Wednesday, it brought pure chaos with teams refusing to play other teams, venues backing out of hosting certain teams and the PIAA appearing to be thrown for a complete loop regarding how to handle the fallout from the Coronavirus scare.

Here’s the basic facts involving two local teams: Lower Merion and Wilson will play on Thursday night in the Class 6A second round at 7 p.m. The unknown is the location, which was still unsettled according to the PIAA’s website on Wednesday night.

The winner of that will get to play the winner of Pittsburgh-area squad Mt. Lebanon and Cheltenham, which causes its own drama of its own. Mt. Lebanon informed PIAA officials that they would not play the Panthers on Wednesday night out of concern because Cheltenham High –– like Lower Merion was closed this week in a precautionary move because of a potential tie-in to a Coronavirus patient.

The game –– scheduled for Chambersburg at 7 p.m. Wednesday –– will now be played at the same spot on Thursday. Except for one problem: as of its most recent state, made Wednesday afternoon, Mt. Lebanon still insists it will not play it.

“After fully considering the totality of the information our District received from the Cheltenham School District, we consulted with the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) who advised the District not to participate in the game,” a statement from the Mount Lebanon School District said. “After speaking to the PIAA leadership, the Mt. Lebanon School District administration has made the decision to not send our team, coaches, and other personnel to compete in the game. In that we cannot ensure the health and safety of our students, coaches, and community, the District administration could see no other viable scenario to permit our team’s participation.

“The District has communicated its position to the PIAA and is awaiting its response. It is our position that our team should not be disqualified from this game and tournament.

“We extend our support to the Cheltenham School District as it is reported to be dealing with an evolving covid-19 situation.”

If Mount Lebanon doesn’t participate on Thursday, it is believed that it will forfeit. As of Wednesday night, the PIAA’s official bracket still has the game taking place, at Chambersburg.

Eerily, the PIAA didn’t say much about anything involving the Coronavirus situation. A call to the Mechanicsburg offices to talk to a member of the PIAA’s executive staff about the situations –– and the overall state of the tournament –– was initially met with a no comment by an office secretary. When the matter was pushed forward, she gave an email of assistant executive director Jennifer Grassel, who answered the following two questions when asked:

- The status of the tournament: “As of right now, all games as posted on the PIAA website are going as scheduled.”

- What will happen to teams that decide not to play: “Each situation is being discussed on a case by case basis at this time.”

Follow-up questions in another e-mail about the PIAA’s conversations with the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the possibility of playing without fans in the stands for the remainder of the tournament of the suspension of the tournament went unanswered as of Wednesday evening.

Given the speed that events moved on Wednesday –– with the World Health Organization issuing a pandemic decree about the virus, President Trump cancelling all flights to and from the United States and Europe, the NBA suspending its season after the positive test of Rudy Gobert and the NCAA and major conferences removing fans from games for the upcoming “March Madness” tournaments for the next four weeks –– it is possible that the PIAA didn’t have a firm hand on the situation.

It should also be pointed out that the organization was running its swimming and diving championships this week, so its executive committee was in multiple places at this point.

However, a lot of people who were in attendance at Wednesday’s Pennridge-Roman Catholic game at Bensalem wondered if this tournament will continue forward. “In my mind, tonight is it,” one coach from a non-playoff team said. 

“The NCAA doesn’t want fans in, so I can’t see how the PIAA can let this go on,” said another long-time observer. 

For the two teams involved –– one who saw its season end and one who kept going- there was satisfaction that the finality came naturally and a hope that the train can keep rolling.

“I was happy that we had a chance to play one last time,” Pennridge head coach Dean Behrens said. “I don’t know how much longer they are going to let us play. At least we can say that we got to play our last game as a group and it didn’t get taken from us because of a situation we are in a society. It was great to get away from hearing about it.”

Roman won 62-51 to set up a marquee rematch against District One champion Methacton on Saturday.

“We expect to play,” Roman head coach Matt Griffin said. “We are going to prepare to play. Obviously, seeing what goes on with the NCAA and the professional teams opens your eyes to the severity of the issue. Obviously, precautions need to be taken. I’m just hoping that we are able to play the game some way and somehow, keeping in mind the student athletes who are seniors and giving them an opportunity to play the game.”

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