While three Valley sports teams will play for state titles this weekend and two football teams battle in the state semifinals on Saturday, thoughts have already shifted to winter sports and the viability of conducting a safe season indoors over the next four months.

The prep winter sports season in Pennsylvania begins today, the first day of practices for boys and girls basketball and swim teams, wrestling squads and indoor track & field. In its Board of Directors meeting on Wednesday, the Pennslyvania Interscholastic Athletic Association approved the start of the season on time rather than delay it as they did in the fall.

The vote comes as Pennsylvania sets the record for new COVID-19 cases almost daily and more than 100 people a day are dying across the commonwealth. The state’s governing body for high school sports made the announcement as high school leagues around the state — including the Northern Tier League, part of District 4 — and college conferences are either pushing back or canceling winter sports.

The Patriot League announced it would limit schools to conference-only games for basketball, while also limiting the number of opponents within league play to reduce travel. The league won’t start games until after the New Year rather than its traditional start around Thanksgiving.

PIAA Executive Director Bob Lombardi said Wednesday he wanted to start practices on time for winter sports because potential positive COVID cases could limit early workouts. Winter sports teams are required to have 15 practices before the first competition.

“It is our feeling that if a school is able, they should try to start on the first practice day and get in as many practices as possible,” Lombardi said. “We’re trying to get people to set a foundation so that if they do have a hiccup (in the season), they can adjust and adapt. If we learned anything from the fall, it was that people who started earlier were able to handle interruptions easier than those that started late, because those who started late ran against time and didn’t have room to adjust their schedules.”

Those who pulled off a relatively successful fall sports season amid the pandemic should be applauded. This goes for student-athletes, coaches, administrators and parents, who understood competition was predicated on vigilantly following strict guidance. 

But pulling off an outdoor season is a lot different than doing it indoors. In many high school stadiums, you can safely social distance 500 people without much trouble. That isn’t going to be the case in most school’s gymnasiums. Crowd sizes will need to be severely limited, and even possibly roster sizes to reduce the number of people in a gym.

For this to work, it will require even more vigilance than we have seen, especially as the cases grow and our hospitals reach capacity. Priorities must also always be health and safety, not to make sure we get to play or watch another game.

NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher, top newsroom executives and community members of the editorial board. Today’s was written by Managing Editor Bill Bowman.

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