August 26, 2020

While NJSIAA Gives Green Light to Fall Sports, Many Questions Remain for Princeton Schools

STAGGERED START: Members of the Princeton High boys’ cross country team take off at the start of the Mercer County Championship meet last fall. While the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) gave the green light to fall sports last Thursday, there is no certainty that PHS athletes will be able to compete this fall. Under the NJSIAA plan, outdoor sports — football, cross country, field hockey, girls’ tennis, and soccer — can go ahead with practices to start on September 14 and competition beginning from September 28-October 2. At this point, Princeton Public Schools and private schools in town are still considering their options regarding the fall season. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

While the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) gave the green light to fall sports last Thursday, a slew of questions remain before it will truly be game on for Princeton schools.

Under the NJSIAA plan, outdoor sports — football, cross country, field hockey, girls’ tennis, and soccer — can go ahead. Practices can begin on September 14 with girls’ tennis to start competition on September 28 and cross country, field hockey, and soccer to have opening day on October 1. Football will start on October 2.

The indoor fall sports — gymnastics and girls’ volleyball — will be moved to a winter start with practices beginning on February 16 and games on March 3. Winter sports teams can begin practice on December 3 with competition starting on December 21.

The NJSIAA, though, set forth a key caveat, noting that “all of these dates are subject to change based on guidance from the governor and Department of Health.”

An important date looming for Princeton High sports is September 14 as that is when Princeton Public Schools officials are slated to decide whether the district will be allowed to go ahead with a fall sports season.

With the neighboring West Windsor-Plainsboro district having already opted out of fall sports, PHS Athletic Director Brian Dzbenski recognizes that the PPS has other priorities besides sports.

“We in Princeton are really focused on bringing the kids back into the building as soon as possible and having teaching and learning going on,” said Dzbenski, noting that under the current district plan the school year is scheduled to start remotely on September 14 with the PHS students not slated to be on campus until October 19.

“Athletics is great for kids but we really have to use a phased-in approach. We have to make it a priority to have our staff come in and feel safe and then have our kids come in the building and feel safe and then have athletics as a part of that.”

While other Mercer County schools have started preseason team workouts, PHS has declined to do so.

“We have not had any preseason as of yet because we are anticipating that need of having in-person learning to take place in our building,” added Dzbenski.

“I know that some schools decided it would be a good idea to start that on the 17th but as a district we held off on making that decision.”

Dzbenski realizes that there are a lot of factors that go into the decision to resume sports.

“I think every school district faces unique challenges and it is really hard based upon so many factors deciding whether or not it is right for each individual district,” said Dzbenski.

“It only can be determined by the superintendent who is getting information from the facilities directors and principals in this building. There is a lot that is going into these openings.”

Having been in contact with other athletic directors in the Colonial Valley Conference, Dzbenski noted that there are a number of scenarios under consideration for executing a safe return to play.

“If you bring these kids over, then transportation becomes an issue and how many kids are on that bus at that moment,” said Dzbenski, pointing out that one proposal involves having competition only on weekends between county schools, with players getting to the games individually.

“That is some of what we have talked about as a conference. We have discussed many of the different COVID-19 schedules at the time. We have different models.”

While seeing the NJSIAA decision as a cause for optimism, PHS track head coach Ben Samara acknowledges that there are hurdles to overcome before the Tigers are back in action.

“All of the coaches are really encouraged; we have been encouraged since the spring that the NJSIAA has really been working hard to create opportunities for kids throughout the state,” said Samara, who has worked with the Princeton Recreation Department and fellow PHS track coach Jim Smirk to run track and cross country camps this summer.

“Our programs over the summer and other programs have shown that outdoor athletics is something that is possible under the circumstances. But we also are realistic and we know that there is a lot more that goes into the decision to have athletics at the high school level than just that. We are optimistic that we will be able to get on the field at some point but we also realize that those decisions are above our pay grade.”

In Samara’s view, cross country is a sport that could be conducted safely this fall under the current circumstances.

“There is really no substitute for true high school athletics; hopefully at some point this year we can get back to it,” added Samara.

“When that will be, we don’t know. We are going to be optimistic about that. Cross county is one of those sports that lends itself to re-entry; there is minimal contact, there is distance. In between races you are keeping your mask on. Our athletes have really done a great job in our programs with the Rec Department of following all of the guidelines to a tee.”

As for private schools in town, there is plenty of uncertainty as well.

Under the Hun School re-entry guide for the fall as set forth on its website, there will be no preseason athletics taking place and intramural or interscholastic competition is still being considered. While the NJSIAA decision may encourage Hun to go ahead with a fall season, the fact that rival Lawrenceville School decided to cancel fall sports could also impact its thinking.

On the other hand, the Princeton Day School started preseason practices for its outdoor fall sports last Monday.

“We had our opening day of preseason today and it went really well,” said new PDS Director of Athletics Katie Fay.

“We started at 7:00 in the morning and we did staggered starts for our teams that were practicing. Kids were there and they were so happy; you could see it in their eyes over their masks. It was just wonderful, you could tell that they were really happy to be back. We were looking at numbers and I think it was our best preseason turnout ever.”

In addition to the spirited response, Fay was happy to see athletes and coaches following the safety protocols in place.

“Everyone was compliant, we had no issues,” said Fay. “People had filled out screening forms ahead of time. Everyone was wearing masks, they were doing social distancing, and the coaches were very happy. It is clear that people are willing to go through all the necessary steps and jump through hoops in order to be able to play.”

In order to launch the preseason training, PDS took a number of steps before going ahead.

“We have an on-staff pediatrician, Dr. Candy Shah, which has been a huge benefit for us,” said Fay.

“We have spent hours going through the polices and protocols, outlining best practices. Our coaches have been amazing. They have been in communication with their parents and their athletes. They all did Zoom calls prior to preseason starting, going through the protocols.”

Looking ahead to the fall, Fay is cautiously optimistic that PDS can play a condensed schedule against such local foes as Hun, Peddie, Pennington, and Stuart.

“We are lucky that we are in an area where we have a number of independent schools who are close,” said Fay.

“When you think about transportation, that is one of the major hurdles. We are in constant communication with the other schools; they are very open about sharing what their protocols are for screening. I do think this season in the fall will be much shorter, there will be far fewer games.”

Across Route 206 from PDS, Stuart started on-campus optional team workouts on August 17.

“It is great; we had better turnout than we did for required preseason in the past for one of the sports,” said Stuart Athletics Director Justin Leith reflecting on the response.

“It feels real good to be out there with the kids; it is something that was certainly missed. It is something I didn’t realize how you take it for granted sometimes as AD. Days are long, you are working on this or that with all the things that are involved. But that first day, it was great having the kids there and seeing the smiles on their faces when they are not covered.”

Encouraged by the NJSIAA Return-to-Play plan, Leith is hopeful that Stuart teams can play a limited schedule this fall.

“I think that is great that the kids at this point are going to have the opportunity to play,” said Leith.

“Sports are taking place outdoors and we have got some strong data from the youth sports that have been going on this summer that as a school we are comfortable. Again things change day to day with that. It is that game of mitigating risk. We would like to play PDS, Hun, Pennington and Hopewell, schools that are a short distance from us. We will have condensed schedules and they are constantly changing.”

Fay, for her part, recognizes that change is the only constant in dealing with COVID-19.

“We will take it day by day, we are watching what we have done and folks that are doing the same thing,” said Fay.

“It gives me hope that we can do this safely but again at the end of the day, all schools are proceeding with the goals of putting the health and safety of the kids first. We will put the brakes on and we will pause if necessary. We will reevaluate, we will reconsider. We will always follow and take into account the NJSIAA guidelines and what other local schools are doing.”

Even if there are no games this fall, Fay believes that just getting the kids out on the fields for practice has a benefit.

“Whether or not competition ends up being able to go forward, I am just glad that are kids are out there, able to exercise, work on their skills and be part of a team,” said Fay.

Summing up the uncertainty that still reigns notwithstanding the NJSIAA fall sports go-ahead, Dzbenski likened it to taking a trip to an unknown destination.

“It has been exhausting, it is very stressful,” said Dzbenski. “If you are going on a vacation, you pack your bags. Now it is like you are packing your bag but you don’t know if you are going to Alaska, if you are going to Aruba, or if you are going to the desert or the mountains.”