LIVINGSTON, NJ — At Livingston High School, the boys and girls soccer programs are dealing with a summer that's different from anything they've ever seen in preparation for a fall season that, at the very least, will start several weeks later than a normal fall soccer season.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) recently released the Phase 2 Guidelines for high school teams returning to the field. Phase 2, which allows for increased team activities and permits schools to use indoor facilities approved by the district, goes into effect on July 27 provided that there no significant changes in health conditions over the next week.

At this point, progression to Phase 2 will be medically appropriate for individual pods of student-athletes who have successfully worked out together during the two weeks of Phase 1 without a confirmed case of COVID-19. Beginning on July 27, pods from Phase 1 will be combined into a pod of about 25-to-30 student-athletes, who will be permitted to share sports equipment within their newly formed pod only in order to help control the spread of illness.

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"The main reason for the delay to the start of the season from what they said is to allow students the opportunity to adjust back to school and school life," said Livingston boys soccer coach Roger Rubinetti. "This will, I guess, let students get used to coming back to school and get settled in before having to start training and game play."

During Phase 1, the Livingston athletes who opted in have been required to provide the coaches with a COVID-19 form for each day of in-person training. According to Rubinetti, temperatures have been taken at each session, and any student whose temperature is above the limit would be sent home immediately and not allowed to return until cleared medically.

"In Phase 1, we are only allowed to do conditioning drills and individual work," he said. "Students are grouped in 'pods' of 10 and must remain with that group during Phase 1. The idea of this phase is to re-acclimate the students to the heat as we train. Students must have a minimum of four sessions in before they can move into Phase 2."

On the girls' end, Livingston coach Brian Carr said that his athletes are adjusting to the idea of a curtailed fall season that won't start with regular-season action until the beginning of October.

"I get the feeling they are more disappointed in the situation as a whole, not necessarily the decision itself," said Carr. "They have accepted the NJSIAA’s decision because they don’t really have any other choice. It’s of course hardest for our seniors because they’ve waited for this moment and were excited to get going; but part of playing sports is experiencing difficult moments, so they will draw on that experience to help them cope."

Last fall, the Livingston's girls soccer team reached the Essex County Tournament championship game.

From a program’s perspective this summer, Carr said the players and coaches are "putting [their] energy into controlling the things [they] have control over."

"All our effort is being put towards preparing for the season regardless of what that will look like," he said. "If this experience has taught our girls anything, it’s that we really have to approach every practice and every game like it’s our last, because it could be. Although the season will be short, I know our girls understand the moment and won’t take anything for granted because at the end of the day, we just want to give our seniors the best season possible so they can end on a good note. They’ve given a lot to the program and deserve it."

Rubinetti also addressed the current atmosphere among the boys soccer players, stating that they are not necessarily disappointed at this point, but are "keeping [their] fingers crossed" that they get a 2020 season in—even if it doesn't look like the normal seasons they are used to participating in.

"I have spoken with all the players in a Zoom meeting and have told them—especially the seniors—that they do have to mentally prepare for the possibility that the fall season may not take place if we start to have a spike again as we draw closer to October," said Rubinetti.

Although the State of New Jersey has seen a steady decrease in new infection cases and hospitalizations over the last several months, the fall sports season will have a different look regardless of future spikes or a second wave.

"I usually describe preseason as a 'sprint' because of how little time it feels we have; so I’m not sure what’s faster than a sprint, but it’s that," said Carr. "We will blink and it will be over. Having preseason during school will obviously reduce the amount of time we have with our players, making fair tryouts more difficult, but it will also impact their performance."

Noting that there is a lot of information provided during preseason that is typically spaced out in order to make it easier for the athletes to digest, Carr added that the learning curve "will be much harder" this year because "students will likely be coming to practice straight from the classroom." 

"I anticipate a certain level of mental and physical fatigue, which of course isn’t ideal, but it is something that all programs will be going through, not just us," he said. "We will just have to be creative to find ways to make preseason as efficient as possible so that the players are ready to go by Oct. 1."

Rubinetti outlined the period when coaches will be able to work with their players, as well as a blackout period when their contact with those players will be limited at the beginning of the school year.

"For the summer, we are allowed to be with the players from July 13 until Aug. 28," he said. "Then we go into a 'virtual' period only as they transition back to school. We can Zoom with the players, [but] no other activities are permitted. We then restart on Sept. 14 training for the regular season, which begins Oct. 1."

He added that the coaches currently plan to hold their regular tryout period in mid-August so that the teams will be formed as they head into the virtual phase and then return to the fields in September. 

During the virtual phase, the coaches also plan to provide daily workouts for the athletes to "help keep them in a training mode" and avoid being "set back to square one," Rubinetti said. 

"To me, having just another virtual phase doesn't make sense," he said. "I understand the need for the kids to get used to transitioning back to school and school work, but the NJSIAA just made us go through all these steps to help acclimate the kids to the weather and conditioning, and now you are saying stop the workouts for two weeks.

"Also, not every student is participating in these two phases, so they fall further behind. We should be allowed at least a 90-minute workout period a couple of days each of those weeks to keep them going in the right direction, not take steps backwards."

While the coaches deal with the vagaries of radically overhauled summer and pre-season regulations, they are also working without specifics about how the regular NJSIAA season will work once it is launched more than three weeks after school starts.

"I can tell you that logistically for large programs like ours, it makes having a meaningful season significantly more challenging," said Carr. "We are anticipating around 90 players coming out for the program, so getting through Phase 1 in pods of 10 is difficult, to say the least. The steps the NJSIAA has taken seem to make sense from a safety point of view, but in order to implement them the way they are designed, it requires resources that I’d imagine many high schools simply don’t have—like space and the manpower—to actually pull it off."

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