Safety Is First Rule For Sports During COVID-19

Southern Regional High School girls volleyball players pose with their trophy after winning the 2019 Southern Invitational Tournament. Enjoying the plaque are Regina Ingling, Madison Gellis, Adriana Conforti, Emma Gildea, Rachael Pharo, Erin Alegre and Stephanie Soares. (Photo courtesy of Robert Alegre)

  The Brick Township High School football team’s coaching staff has decided to make something good out of the international catastrophe known as the coronavirus pandemic.

  The staff has decided to turn the pandemic into a personal responsibility lesson for its Green Dragons.

  “We had a good talk today (Monday. Aug. 24) about doing the right thing,” said Len Zdanowicz, the team’s head coach. “Our program is following the rules. Teams that don’t follow the rules will put everyone else at risk.”

  Zdanowicz, a former Brick player and an assistant coach under the legendary Warren Wolf, said about 50 players are on the team.

  “We split the team into two groups of about 25 players,” he said. “If anyone tests positive, we have to shut it down. We are teaching the boys about accountability. The boys realize it is on their shoulders and in their hands.”

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  Zdanowicz said he told the players to stick together.

  “We want our players to avoid contact with those who are not on the team and are not doing the right thing,” he said.

  The veteran coach said he and his staff have had to make adjustments in the wake of the pandemic.

  “Early on,” he said, “it was tough as football is such a contact game,” he said. “The new normal is to have everyone stay away from each other during the water breaks. We have always wanted our kids to be part of a group. We have always wanted them fraternizing. Now, you tell your players to stay apart. I have no complaints. The boys are doing exactly what they need to do.”

  The season normally begins during Labor Day week. It had consisted of nine regular-season games, playoffs and consolation contests for teams that don’t qualify for the playoffs. This year’s regular season will consist of six games for each team and playoffs for teams that qualify. The regular season will begin Oct. 2. There will be no competition for Shore Conference divisional titles.

  “Not playing for a divisional title stinks,” Zdanowicz said. “The boys know who the better teams are. The boys are just happy they have games right now.”

Brick Township High School’s Logan Bukowski competes for the Green Dragons. (Photo courtesy Brick Township High School football team)

  The regular season will conclude during the week of Nov. 6. Regular season schedules are based on the enrollment, locality and the competitive nature of each program. Teams with a scheduled bye week will be permitted to find an opponent for that week.

  A team can also drop a game if its opponent agrees. In that event, the team that agrees will likely not have a make-up game. Playoff games will be determined by New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association guidelines.

  “We’re trying to get through the season,” Zdanowicz said. “It’s great to be back out there. Now, having a football season is realistic. More and more, it looks like it is going to happen for us.”

  Toms River South football coach Ron Signorino said his Indians are happy to be back on the Indian Reservation despite the pandemic.

  “We’re grateful and appreciative at this point just to be playing football,” he said. “It’s not the ideal situation, but we’re out there playing and competing and trying to get back to normal. The guys worked for this and are looking forward to playing high school football. We have an attitude of gratitude that we are getting to play.

  “The NJSIAA is determined to get all of the athletes back and playing. Is the situation ideal or perfect? Of course not, but we are not in normal times. You adapt, overcome and make the best of it.”

  Signorino said the closure of schools in March by Gov. Murphy because of the pandemic had an impact on collegiate recruiting.

  “Colleges normally come in during March in person and the high school coaches, players and college coaches meet each other in school,” he said. “Because school was closed, there was no in-person contact. Instead, we used emails and text messages. I don’t feel at the end of the day the situation did not prevent guys from playing college football. I don’t see the pandemic as a problem for college football recruiting.”

  The pandemic has resulted in a different practice routine at South.

  “It has not impacted how we coach,” Signorino said, “but it has impacted the way we coach in terms of social distancing. We are not in normal times. There is a little trial and error and experimenting. The guidelines make coaching a little more challenging. We tell our players to wash their hands. I am in my 10th season as the head coach here and I never had to tell our players that until this year.

Tyler Madeo of the Toms River South Indians makes a nifty catch. (Photo Courtesy Toms River High School South football)

  “We tell them to be aware of different situations and to be aware of what goes on in their homes. We tell them to practice good, clean hygiene and to never leave their homes without wearing a mask. We are dealing with young men so we probably have to remind them more than we would adults.”

  Signorino said the Indians will host Lakewood in a non-divisional contest at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9, in the 101st game of the series between the former Thanksgiving rivals. It will be the first night game of the series. The game will take place in Week Two.  

  “We were originally scheduled to play Lakewood in Week One,” Signorino said. “We’re excited to get started. We’re looking forward to having some fun and playing some football.”                                              

  Boys and girls soccer, girls tennis and field hockey regular seasons will begin Oct. 1. They began during the week of Labor Day in the past.     

  Brick Memorial High School girls soccer coach Bill Caruso, who has led the Mustangs to four NJSIAA Group IV championships and a 346-160-32 record in 26 seasons at the helm, said he is keeping his emotions in check.

  “I am still on edge as the rug can be pulled out from under us at any minute,” he said, “but it’s very encouraging that there will be high school soccer at some point. We would not be able to handle a fall season without soccer. Our lives revolve around it.”

  Caruso said he and his coaching staff met with their Mustangs.

  “I told the girls, ‘Let’s just cherish the moments we have together and work hard,’ ” he said. “This pandemic has been a challenge as the players and the coaches are worried. We will do our best and work as hard as we can. We’re all keeping our fingers crossed.”

  The indoor sports of girls volleyball and girls gymnastics have also felt the sting of the pandemic. Each sport began regular-season play during Labor Day week in the past. This year, regular-season play will begin March 3 in both sports. Postseason play will take place April 15-24.

 Southern Regional boys and girls volleyball coach Eric Maxwell, who leads the state’s boys mentors in career wins, could be in a bind as boys volleyball is played during the spring season.

  “The NJSIAA has not come out with the exact starting time for the spring sports season, which will be from mid-April to late June,” said Maxwell, who coached the Rams’ girls team to the NJSIAA state title in 2008. “(Southern athletics director) Chuck Donohue said he does not feel there will be an overlap. If there is an overlap, we will be able to work it out, but I don’t think it’s going to be a major issue. A lot of coaches in the state coach both girls and boys volleyball.”

  Maxwell, who has led the Rams’ boys teams to six NJSIAA state championships, said he is taking an upbeat look at the situation.

  “I felt moving girls volleyball to the spring was doable,” he said. “I am trying to take a positive angle. Perhaps we can travel more and play a higher level schedule if the pandemic eases by the time the season starts. We will work through this. At least the season wasn’t canceled. We will be happy we are playing.”

  Maxwell said there is plenty of non-high school volleyball available.

  “Kids will play club ball and travel with their club teams,” he said. “If they play high school ball, maybe we can make it safer. There will be club tournaments. Those who want to play will find places to play. Maybe we could have played girls volleyball in the fall. If we played girls volleyball as strictly a varsity sport, we would have 14-16 players on a team. I don’t feel it’s dangerous.”

  Maxwell said the National Federation of State High School Associations issued guidelines about two months ago.

  “Girls volleyball players are not on top of each other when they play,” he said. “The federation listed girls volleyball as one of the safer sports. Football will be played during the fall, but girls volleyball will not be played during the fall. There is a lot more contact in football than there is in girls volleyball.

  “It is what it is. We will be ready for the sport in February. There will be positives and negatives. The people who are in charge make their decisions on what they feel is best. We will be ready to do what we need to do.”

Toms River High School South football players display unity. From left to right are Tyler Madeo, Gerry Ferrigno, Anthony Jonin and Travis Squire. (Photo courtesy Toms River High School South football)

  Maxwell made it clear he hopes the spring sports season resumes.

  “I hope the spring sports don’t get shortchanged again as they were already hammered,” he said. “I would hate to see a second straight spring without a state title. It’s a concern of mine. I hope they (the NJSIAA) are thinking it through. Is the moving of girls volleyball to the spring season really a safety issue or is it a financial issue? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. The NJSIAA is supposed to look out for all of the athletes in all of the sports. I hope it is done fairly across the board.”                                                       

  In boys and girls cross country, the NJSIAA Group team and state championship meets and the Meet of Champions, an individual event, will not be run. However, there will be sectional team and individual championship meets. The Six Flags Wild Safari Invitational, a boys and girls meet in Jackson Township, has been canceled.   

  Schools that offer virtual instruction are eligible to compete in sports.

  Under NJSIAA guidelines, competition in winter sports will begin Dec. 21. In past years, it began around Thanksgiving. Postseason play will take place Feb. 5-17. The spring sports season, canceled earlier this year because of the pandemic, does not have a starting date. The NJSIAA has chosen a wait-and-see approach from the fall and winter seasons before determining the dates for practice, regular-season and postseason play.

  Athletes who compete in three sports will still have a chance to play all three of their sports.

  Football, boys and girls cross country, field hockey, girls tennis and boys and girls soccer teams will begin practice Sept. 14. Boys and girls gymnastics and girls volleyball teams will begin practice Feb. 16. The NJSIAA said the dates are subject to change based on guidance from Murphy and the New Jersey Department of Health.

  This year’s NJSIAA tournaments in boys and girls soccer will end with the sectional final round and will be completed in a span of no more than eight days with just one day off between rounds. The boys tournament is scheduled for Nov. 14-21. The girls tournament will begin Nov. 16 and conclude Nov. 22.

  There will be no Group state champions. All matches from the opening round through the sectional finals will take place at the home of the higher seeded team. The plans are subject to change.

  Last season’s boys and girls group classifications will be the model for separating teams into sections. The number of entrants and the proximity between schools could alter the sections relative to what they were in the fall of 2019.

  The power point model of seeding has also been done away with for this season at least partially. Power points will be one of four criteria considered by a seeding committee that will determine where each team will be seeded. The other three, according to the posted regulations, are record, winning percentage and strength of schedule. The committee will most likely consist of athletics administrators with the intention of representing different parts of the state.

  The maximum number of games allowed for each team is 14. The regular season will conclude Nov. 12. The tournament cutoff date – the final day from which matches will be considered in seeding – is Nov. 2. The seeding meeting will take place Nov. 5.

  The changes signal the cancellation of the 2020 Shore Conference Tournaments in boys and girls soccer.

  Meanwhile, officials will have the discretion to disqualify without warning any player or coach who confronts an official in a manner that violates their personal space. Disqualifications of that type will not carry with them the usual accompanying two-game suspension and will allow the team to replace an offending player.

  If the violating player or coach persists in their confrontation, the official has the discretion to issue a straight red card, which will result in the loss of a player on the field if the offender is a player and a two-match suspension. The modification will apply to both the regular season and the postseason.

  In other pandemic related news, the NJSIAA will allow as many spectators at a sporting event as are allowed by executive order of Murphy’s office. Under those guidelines, 500 fans will be allowed at an event as 500 is the maximum number of people allowed at an outdoor gathering. The limit will not include participants on the field, which includes players, coaches, officials, trainers, scoreboard operators and other game day personnel.

  NOTE: nj.com and njsiaa.org contributed to this report.