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'What are we practicing for?': High school seasons remain in flux

12/08/2020, 9:45am EST
By Mitchell Gladstone

Tom Durant (above) and West Chester East, like the rest of the area's high school programs, are trying to figure out their situations for 2020-21. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Mitchell Gladstone (@mpgladstone13)

Tom Durant has had plenty of time to wait — nearly 300 days, in fact, since his West Chester East team last played a game.

It was a finish to the season that nobody truly could’ve anticipated. 

Sure, the uncertainty of COVID had started to creep in, but the Vikings had their minds on a Class 5A state title after comfortably taking home a District 1 crown just a few weeks earlier.

The final moment of their campaign indeed was a celebratory one — just that of a Tym Richardson buzzer-beater in the second round. That March 10 night marked their final game before the rest of the state tournament, along with East’s season, was ultimately abandoned.

Fast forward nearly nine months, and while some area programs have already their official tryouts, ramping up for a new season. Durant and the Vikings remain on hold. The hope is that they’ll be able to return to the court Dec. 14 —  West Chester Area School District has all three of its programs currently on pause — and that’s just one example of the bumpy start to this high school hoops season, with rules and restrictions varying from county to county and league to league.

“Our kids are chomping at the bit,” Durant told CoBL last week. “You just hope you get to play, even if it’s with masks. These kids will play with masks on — if you polled every one of the kids and said, ‘We either play with masks or we don’t play at all,’ they’d absolutely play with masks. The kids want to play.”

With the exception of a five-game series between the Phelps and Perkiomen Schools back in November, though, no one in the Philadelphia area anticipates playing games of any sort until January. And in nearly every case, the plan is to go with league-only slates.

But that’s just a plan. Almost nobody has an actual schedule — at least one school has outright canceled its season as Church Farm opted not to play this winter — and things seem to be changing by the moment as policies across the region remain fluid

Rahsool Diggins (above) and Archbishop Wood are hoping to get a chance to win a PCL title this spring. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Consider the Catholic League, which has schools in all five counties, as well as some that are part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and others that aren’t. As a result, Archbishop Wood, which is in Bucks County, can practice, albeit just doing skill work while still wearing masks.

Fellow PCL schools Bonner, Archbishop Carroll and Cardinal O’Hara, all of three of which are in Delaware County, can also work out, but they’re limited by the county to a maximum of 10 people in a single gym at one time. 

Those rules also apply to Del-Val League programs such as Chichester, and coach Clyde Jones has had to get creative there — he’s practicing in split sessions, one in the late afternoon and another in the evening, making sure all his players can get in the gym each day.

But the same can’t be said for Philadelphia-based Roman Catholic and Neumann Goretti, a pair of perennial Catholic League contenders. They’re both at the mercy of the city’s health and safety regulations, which have been stricter than those of the surrounding counties.

As a result, all Philadelphia County programs have been kept out of their gyms for essentially the entire fall. Math, Civics & Sciences coach Lonnie Diggs said that right now, his team can only get together in very small groups outside — either on a court or a track.

Diggs and his Mighty Elephants are as eager to play as anyone. The reigning Public League champions were on their way toward a Class 2A state title in March and will return Miami commit Nisine Poplar, their star among several talented veteran pieces.

But just as with everyone else, preparing to build on last year’s success has been complicated by the pandemic.

“It’s tough,” Diggs said. “We try to do some stuff on Zoom, but it’s hard, man. The kids are already on Zoom all day with school, so it’s like, to try to have them on Zoom for the athletic stuff is tough.”

At this time in a normal year, most schools would be well into non-conference play and on the verge of starting league games. Instead, they’re just hoping there’s a start at all — both the Catholic and the Public Leagues hope to play come 2021, but neither has yet to put out a formal schedule.

And things could get really complicated if the Philadelphia School District opts not to allow its schools to compete. Would the Pub go on with just its charter schools — notably MCS, Gratz, Imhotep and Mastery North, among others — and potentially have those teams fill out their schedules with a handful of non-league games?

It’s why Wood coach John Mosco isn’t ramping up his team like he normally would. “If we’re practicing,” he said, “what are we practicing for?”

It’s been an equally complicated situation up at Abington. The Ghosts were working out up until early November, but Montgomery County regulations initially delayed their tryouts, originally scheduled for Nov. 30, by a week.

Abington coach Charles Grasty (above) isn't allowed to start practices until Jan. 11 -- for now. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Then, head coach Charles Grasty learned last week that Abington now won’t be able to get anything formal started until Jan. 11, adding his team’s plans could change again later this week.

“We stay in communication with our guys, telling them to work out,” Grasty said. “We have some experienced guys coming back this year, so they know what it takes. I keep telling them, for now, to keep hitting the weights at home and running as much as they can — try to stay physically fit and ready.”

The Suburban One League, which Abington is a part of, was shut down for two weeks, but some of its teams are now back on the court. Those schools are planning to play 18 league games in the new year.

Both the Ches-Mont and Central Leagues have similar plans. Bishop Shanahan coach John Dougherty is one of the few coaches with a slate currently in place — the Ches-Mont is expecting to have its schools play seven home-and-home series with the teams in their division and then will add two crossover games at the end of the regular season. The Central League will also play 16 games, but the format hasn’t been set other than planning to put all 12 teams into league playoffs.

In the meantime, coaches like Grasty and Durant have seized the opportunity to spend a little extra time away from the court.

“[COVID] gave us some time to step back,” Grasty said. “It definitely gave me time, and I’m sure other coaches will agree, it gave us more time to spend with our families — just take a deep breath. Because once we get going, it’s non-stop.”

But as with everything these days, just getting a season off the ground remains a hope and not a certainty.

“What I’ve come to realize since March, you can’t even think past today,” Durant said. “When I say that, you can prepare for tomorrow but what’s the state going to tell us tomorrow? Everything’s so vague, it’s hard to know.”

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