by Andrew Garda
By any metric, the teams and athletic departments of Montclair High School and Montclair Kimberley Academy’s Upper School had very successful fall seasons.
More than any other achievement, though, just staying on the field all season without having to cancel a game because of a COVID-19 issue on their end was the one that mattered the most.
MHS and MKA had games canceled, but it was always due to an issue their opponent had.
New Jersey saw more than 40 schools either cancel individual games, pause seasons or, in some cases, shut down entire programs or athletic departments during fall sports. In Week 6 of the high school football season alone, 50 teams sat out — and that was the second week in a row that reached that number.
For example, neighboring Glen Ridge was shutdown and shifted to remote learning after 27 positive COVID-19 cases were reported at Glen Ridge High School. Of those tests, 14 were related to athletic teams.
That wasn’t the case for the Montclair schools.
“Managing the fall athletics sports season during a pandemic was no easy task,” said MKA athletic director Todd Smith. “But collectively our coaching staff, athletic training staff, school nurses and our physical plant department really stepped up to the challenge to make sports this fall at MKA a reality.”
MHS athletic director Patrick Scarpello said there were times where he was just watching programs all over the state have to quarantine, and marveled at what Montclair was accomplishing.
“It’s the middle of October, everybody around us seemingly was shutting down,” he recalled. “Livingston, West Essex, Seton Hall Prep, you name it. And what a great opportunity for us to say, listen, regardless of win-loss, we’re giving these kids a full season because they committed to us and the coaches committed to them.”
Both ADs credit their whole school community with the success.
“I think it was a full collective effort amongst our student-athletes and their families, of them just wanting to see this through,” Smith said. “And maybe because they had the reality of not having a season last spring, they knew what that felt like, and they didn’t want that to happen again.”
That isn’t to say things were always perfect. MHS girls tennis had a 14-day shutdown before the season, and MKA’s football team was shut down for part of a week while they waited for a teammate’s test to come back.
In both cases, though, it was a positive COVID-19 test for a parent that was the issue, not a problem because of the student-athletes. Even the occasional potential exposure rarely resulted in anything but a quick test and perhaps an individual isolation during the wait for the results.
While athletes needed to stay focused, it was up to the coaches and athletic trainers to make sure state and NJSIAA criteria were met.
“A lot of the daily COVID-19 procedures had to fall on our athletic trainers’ and head coaches’ shoulders, especially since we were in a hybrid academic schedule with our student-athletes being in and out of school every other day,” Smith said.
“But our coaches did an amazing job managing all of it, including temperature checks, monitoring pre-practice COVID questionnaires and basically creating a socially distanced environment at practice and [on] game days, which as we know with athletics was not going to be easy.”
“The coaches really deserve the credit,” Scarpello said. “They communicated with me at all hours of the night, which is what I asked of them so I could contact-trace, and I can communicate to the medical team what we need to do moving forward. And while coaches did have to have a lot to do all day, it was an all-hands-on-deck approach.”
Neither high school could have succeeded without support from the people above them, either, something both Scarpello and Smith made sure to point out.
“The support of [Head of School] Tom Nammack and [Head of Upper School] Dave Flocco [along with] the MKA administration and health and safety committee was appreciated and was incredible,” Smith said.
For Scarpello, when the state gave districts the green light to play sports, district Superintendent Jonathan Ponds threw full support behind the athletic department.
“He said, ‘P.J., as the athletic director, I’m trusting you to put in protocols that are going to keep our kids safe, but let’s give these kids a chance to play sports if the state allows it,’” Scarpello said.
He also had a lot of praise for the medical team that was there to support his efforts to keep things going.
“The second part of it is really Betty Strauss,” he said. “As the nursing supervisor, she supported us throughout the entire season. I was texting her, calling her, emailing her, you know, 6, 7 o’clock in the morning, all the way up until 11, 12 o’clock at night, anytime a potential case would come up.”
For the coaches the support from all levels of administration was vital as well.
“I think what was crucial for MHS was that all of the decision makers for the BOE like Dr. Ponds and PJ Scarpello were involved early and often and really thought through the complexity of the situation,” said MHS girls soccer coach Ashley Hammond. “I also believe that the team of coaches from Toure [Weaver], Coach [John] Fiore, Coach [Daryl Washington], the athletic trainers and many more coaches never questioned or got upset with the protocols. Everyone just worked hard to make sure the kids were well monitored.”
“I am very thankful to the administration’s desire to support sports this fall, specifically Todd Smith, Dr David Flocco and Tom Nammack,” said MKA boys soccer coach Rob Leather. “I am also thankful to my coaches for helping me put into place the protocols which were key for keeping the players on the field. ”
Ultimately, though, school administration, coaches, teachers and parents could only do so much. If they were going to stay on the field, the athletes themselves had to be responsible for their own actions.
Scarpello was most impressed by the maturity the athletes showed in making the right decisions time and time again.
“I wasn’t shocked that the coaches bought in, because they’re adults,” he said. “But the fact that 13-, 14- to 18-year-old students were selfless enough not to go out and socialize, not to go out and risk their seasons by socializing, I think that was the biggest success for me.
“Even with the two soccer championships, that’s great, but all in all as the athletic director I couldn’t be any more proud of these kids for doing what we asked of them.”
Like Scarpello, Smith knew the season would come down to the players doing what they needed to.
“Our MKA student-athletes rose to the challenge and conducted themselves at the highest level possible, both on and off the field, adhering to the COVID-19 policies and guidelines that we as a school and our health and safety committee put in place,” he said.
“I applaud and congratulate them on simply wanting to play and putting themselves, their teammates, their coaches and peers in the best position to play on our fields and courts each day. They had to make smart, prudent decisions about their actions and the way they conducted themselves. I know it wasn’t easy, but collectively they just wanted to play and have this sense of normalcy in their lives.”
The coaches agreed.
For MHS football coach John Fiore, it was about making the right choices.
“I was really thankful for the players sacrifice,” said MKA boys soccer coach Rob Leather. “They did everything we asked them, on and off the field. They never complained about mask wearing and even wrote to school administration to give their input on testing and athletics.”
MKA head football coach Anthony Rea said support off the field from the administration, coaches and other staff was helpful in letting kids focus on the field.
“I think beyond some luck, which obviously helps, MKA did a great job putting protocols in place prior to the start of the season so we were able to start off with established protocols,” he said. “The school also consistently reinforced those protocols which kept the athletes focused on doing what they could to help them stay on the field.”
For Smith it seemed that having to go through a season during a pandemic made the teams bond even closer than usual.
“I think it was amazing to watch,” he said. “And the success that we had schoolwide this fall, I think it was a direct result of this collective sort of ownership of the season the student-athletes took themselves. It doesn’t usually happen every year. We always want that to happen. We and our coaches have asked for it to happen, but I think more so than ever, it actually happened this year.”
That focus seemed to translate onto the field, where the results were impressive.
Both MHS and MKA took home titles in their respective SEC cross-country divisions, and the Mounties placed very well individually in the NJSIAA Sectionals. MHS girls soccer won the SEC American Division as well as the NJSIAA North East E title, while the Mountie boys won the SEC American as well and stacked up their own NJSIAA North East G, Group 4 title along with it. The MKA girls soccer team won the SEC Liberty Division and had a great run in the NJSIAA North East F, losing in penalty kicks to Immaculate Heart Academy, a bigger school they never would have faced if the pandemic hadn’t forced the NJSIAA to shuffle teams around in unusual ways.
And the MKA boys had a great season as well, going to the quarterfinals of the NJSIAA North East H, Non-Public tournament, where they fell in double overtime to Seton Hall Prep, a team they tied earlier in the season.
Now the schools face the daunting prospect of repeating the success during the winter season, if there is one.
Smith said the biggest factor will be that the schools don’t control the game or practice environment for some sports, like hockey and indoor track, which take place at independently owned venues. Schools owned the fields soccer or football were played on in the fall. They don’t own hockey rinks or indoor tracks.
That makes athlete and family buy-in even more critical.
“Our athletes [and their families] are going to have to even make that much more of a commitment, if they want to play,” he said.
The biggest challenge Scarpello sees in the winter season is the multiple start dates for the various sports, including hockey, whose schedule has been changed more than once as of the publication of this article.
That requires things like physicals and medical paperwork to be up to date, as well as making sure game locations are secure, something made a little easier with the state mandate that there be no fans.
Ultimately, Scarpello said, the biggest tool for anyone trying to make all this work is communication.
“The one thing that carried us through the fall is that we were all on the same page all the time,” he said. “Effective communication, going from top on down. Meaning from the governor to the NJSIAA, to me as the athletic director, and then to the coaches to say, ‘Listen, here’s our guidelines. Here’s how we’re doing it.’ ”