by Andrew Garda
With the rapid onset of COVID-19 in New Jersey and around the United States, many communities, including Montclair, took the extraordinary step of closing schools and shifting to online-only learning.
On Monday, March 16, the closing of schools became a statewide directive from Gov. Phil Murphy. Naturally, as schools are shut down, so are spring sports.
“We are closed the same time school is closed. Athletics will resume when school does,” Montclair High Athletic Director Patrick Scarpello wrote to the Montclair Local via email on Monday.
Montclair Kimberley Academy’s spring break began March 14 and runs through March 30, so the school was already empty. However even before the statewide school closures, Athletic Director Todd Smith had written in an email that the Cougars had already suspended practices for spring sports and cancelled annual spring break trips for baseball, softball and lacrosse.
Immaculate Conception High School is currently closed as well, and while Athletic Director Ryan Horan could not be reached before press time, athletics there are assumed to be shut down as well.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association issued a statement Monday night that no interscholastic athletic competition — including practices, scrimmages or games, organized either by the school or by parents/students — will occur until schools reopen, but that the NJSIAA would remain “committed to providing student-athletes as many opportunities as possible.” The hope is to allow for the completion of spring championships if schools reopen in time, but the NJSIAA stated that “if we cannot accommodate the traditional postseason tournament structure, we will look at other options and other opportunities.”
While spring sport practices had been going on since the beginning of the month, the regular season was scheduled to begin March 25 (for boys and girls’ lacrosse) and April 1 (for all other sports).
A FLUID SITUATION
The original plan for MKA was to reconvene on Friday, March 20 and decide whether athletics could be resumed the week of March 23, but the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases both in the state and nationwide is likely to push that back to a later date.
Like MKA, the plan for Montclair School District was to be closed short term — two weeks beginning March 16 — but as of now, whether that length of time will be sufficient is unknown. Guidance from the district informed parents to be prepared for schools to be closed into at least mid-April.
Much like teachers who are learning how to teach remotely on the fly, coaches are also coping with the new normal of trying to encourage their teams to stay healthy, safe and if possible, in game shape from a distance.
“The first thing I said to them is listen to your parents,” said MHS softball coach Mike Goldstein. “Second, I said stay safe and healthy. And third if there is an opportunity to stay in softball shape…if those things allow you to be outside and to practice, if we do come back — and I was assuming we were — the teams that stay somewhat prepared for the going to have to take advantage.”
For a little while, when MHS was practicing and MKA was unable to, that extended to the Cougars. Goldstein was in contact with MKA coach Jessica Sarfati, who reached out when the MKA Florida trip was cancelled.
“Jess and I spoke, and emailed and texted each other,” he said. “So, we added them to our scrimmage schedule so we were going to scrimmage [next week].”
When the first MHS scrimmage was cancelled he reached out again.
“I said Jess, we’re still here. We’re still practicing. We have the field, do you want to come over and scrimmage?,” Goldstein said. “But she couldn’t because they were shut down at that point.”
Not long after, it was the same for Montclair High.
Goldstein said he didn’t leave the equipment in the school, as he thought he might not be able to access it when it closed, and wanted to be able to drop it off to anyone on his team who might need it.
While large captains’ practices are prohibited now, there may come a time when they or other opportunities to train might emerge, and he wanted his team to know he could provide them with what they needed to stay in shape.
MKA boys lacrosse coach Paul Edwards is taking a different approach.
“Our coaches, we’ve been talking a little bit over the weekend about is there a way we teach the kids online?” he said from South Carolina, where he and his wife currently are. “If [the schools] are going to teach kids online, is there a way we can come up with some sort of online practices or have a little workout for them and go through some videos about offense or defense. Probably more just to keep the kids engaged and with each other. We’re trying to think of ways to do things like that.”
Edwards said one of the college coaches at Harvard reached out to high school coaches and put a webinar on for them Monday afternoon.
“Kind of doing the same thing. Telestrating different things.”
It helps the coaches as well as the kids as well, according to Edwards.
“There’s no sports on TV, it’s driving me absolutely crazy,” he said with a laugh.
MKA girls lacrosse coach Chelsea Intrabartola is also taking a more digital route to keeping her team working.
“We have actually been communicating as a team every single day since school has closed,” she wrote in an email. “We use an app [called] GroupMe to communicate with each other. The coaches have been sending the team daily workouts to do at home, as it’s still super important for us to stay active throughout all of this.”
Intrabartola said staying active has more benefits than merely being ready for the season, if and when it begins.
“For our mental health as well,” she wrote. “We have been having a lot of fun with it actually! We’ve all been sharing workout videos, ideas for how to pass the time, photos of our pets, and generally just trying to check in on each other and make sure we are ready for when we can play again. It’s been really helpful to keep us united as a team [and] I highly recommend it to other teams!”
Even sports that are more individual have been impacted, according to MHS boys tennis coach Guy Rabner.
“I was hoping for captains’ practices,” he wrote in an email Monday. “Since they can’t even play tennis now, hopefully they will walk, bike or run. There aren’t honestly a lot of options.”
Montclair High School track coach Daryl Washington said while the season is in doubt, the team is holding out hope they may see a partial season.
“I spoke to a few athletes on Monday who were heartbroken to see that Penn Relays was cancelled but still optimistic for the continuance of the remainder of the season since we really don’t get rolling until May,” he wrote in an email. “So even if we are out until April 20th we will have 6 days to practice and then May 1st we would start the championship portion of the season and we would basically need to race into shape.”
Washington said the long indoor season helped many of the athletes, and could be an advantage for them if the season happens.
“My main concern is obviously first and foremost the well being of these athletes and secondly, if we are granted the chance to compete, their fitness levels will be intact and of course we’ll be ready to go.”
Still, he said he’s trying to make sure everyone is realistic.
“We have also had the honest conversation that the season could be over and what we would do moving forward if that was the case,” he said.
All of the coaches know the shuttering of the schools and the season was necessary, and they all know their teams realize that as well.
That doesn’t make the situation easier, and like the other coaches, Rabner is also trying to manage his team’s emotions about losing a portion — or perhaps all — of their season.
“[The] kids were a bit bummed but it all happened so fast so there wasn’t a lot of time to get their feelings about it. They realize there might not even be a season,” he wrote. “I [especially] feel bad for the seniors who may not get to enjoy their [last] season.”
More than any other group, seniors at both the high school and collegiate levels face the bleakest outcomes if this continues to last. However, while the NCAA announced they are planning to extend eligibility to college seniors who play spring sports, that’s not an answer for high school seniors.
While Goldstein hopes teams get a chance for at least an abbreviated season, he made sure his seniors knew what they meant to him and the team.
“I told the seniors how much I appreciated them,” he said. “Told him how much perseverance it takes to go from freshman year to senior year and, you know, how proud I was of them. And I just hope it wasn’t the last time I would see them on a softball field.”