WEST ORANGE, NJ — The NJSIAA recently released the Phase 2 Guidelines for high school teams returning to the field. These guidelines will be in place as of July 27, after teams successfully complete Phase 1.

Phase 2 allows for increased team activities as it pertains to skills and drills development and permits schools to use indoor facilities if approved by the school district. Once individual pods of student-athletes have successfully completed Phase 1, and providing that there has not been a significant change in health conditions indicating otherwise, progression to Phase 2 is medically appropriate. Larger groups of student-athletes are permitted during Phase 2 because the individual pods have worked out together without a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a two-week period.
 
Phase 2 allows the pods from Phase 1 to be combined into a pod of 25-30 student-athletes. Student-athletes will be permitted to share sports equipment within their newly formed pod only. Limiting the sharing of equipment to pods will, as in Phase 1, help to control the spread of COVID-19. It is imperative that all sports equipment be cleaned and disinfected in accordance with applicable guidelines.

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All of this leads up to a fall sports season that, if it does presumably get under way, will be shorter and start almost a month later than a normal scholastic fall season would.

At West Orange High School, the boys' and girls' soccer programs are dealing with a summer very different from any other in preparation for a fall season that, at the very least, will start several weeks later than a normal fall soccer season.

"Everybody is adjusting," West Orange boys soccer coach Doug Nevins said. "I haven't done my preseason camp for my high school team yet, but in terms of little things, they are not picking the ball up with their hands, and now coaches pick up equipment to clean up at the end of a practice session. The kids actually adapt quickly. Soccer is a naturally distant sport anyway, and a lot of the drills, the kids are gonna be far apart from each other anyway."

Nevins has also been running a camp for younger kids, and getting used to some of the protocols by working with them.

"I used to put all the tents together at camp, but now they area spread all throughout the field," Nevins said. "We deal with the rules to get us to be extra safe and hope for the best."

Sean Devore, the girls soccer coach at West Orange High School, said that as summer activities resumed for his team, the reaction was a blend of happiness among the kids and a surreal feeling among the coaches.

"I think for kids it was a happy moment to be back on the field," Devore said. "But as coaches, it was very strange for us. We all had masks, and now that it's been two weeks, you hear about the new normal. We do the best we can, the girls are excited to be there, and if everyone keeps following protocols, we will have a season. For me it's extremely strange; with the masks it is hard to breathe. We’re going at night when it’s a little cooler, 90 minutes max, and when it’s really hot we are shortening practices, I would never bring kids out at 2:00 when it’s 90 degrees."

Nevins believes there is a wellness component to being back out on the soccer pitch that goes beyond whatever the latest COVID-19 data may indicate.

"I know for their physical and emotional and psychological wellbeing, it is important to be able to run around, socialize and relieve some stress," Nevins said. "It has definitely been hard. My 18-year-old is usually a very happy, stable kid, and yet there were days when she was miserable. These kids have to be able to get out, to laugh, exercise, and be with each other. It is important to these kids to be able to do those things. Parents totally understand with the virus I have to limit numbers and shorten the season."

The NJSIAA not only dictated a shortened fall season in which there would not be regular-season games until Oct. 1. That also has forced a reconfiguration of the summer calendar, which allows teams to be together in the summer until late August, but then not again until mid-September, after school has already started--if, or when, school does start.

"I have spoken to the team, and everybody wants to resume normalcy in our lives, but obviously we can't do that," Devore said. "We are going to try to get a season in and we are pretty happy about that. Sept. 13 is the date that official practices can begin. The practices we do now, in the summer, do not count toward eligibility. I think it's a good thing to start later. This is a brand new thing to everybody. We are still learning new things every day about this virus. The more important thing is to keep everybody safe, and we would rather ensure everybody’s safety by delaying the start of the season. I understand kids want to be out there full time. The protocols are not foolproof, but they are good."

Nevins admitted that there has not been a full embrace of the concept of a shortened fall soccer season.

"(It's been) a very mixed reaction, and there has been some levels of disappointment because of the shorter season, but they are also happy and hopeful that they will get to play even if it is only a seven-week season," Nevins said, "and there is also still a level of apprehension and uncertainty. There is a plan for us to play, but we will just have to live it day by day. The kids, they want to play. I do feel much safer outside. When I am coaching, I keep a mask on when I am coaching them and I take the mask off when everybody is more than 10 feet away from me."

Because the NJSIAA is dictating that schools limit the distance required to travel between opponents during the proposed regular season, local games will take precedence. Nobody has a revised schedule yet, and the status of pre-season scrimmages has yet to be worked out.

"We will eliminate non-league games," Nevins said. "If you play three games a week in October you’ll play 12 games. Hopefully there will be a county and state tournament, but we don't know that. I hope they can have some kind of a fall season to remember."

Devore said that, although an interruption in a season or a school year is a challenge to coaches, its effects are more profound in students.

"We don’t want to go back to being stuck inside and locked down," Devore said. "Everyone wants to be safe. Everyone has done a phenomenal job in West Orange. Everyone wants to resume some form of normalcy. I am very proud of the kids. I will coach again, but I want the kids to play, especially the seniors. Some of them may never play again after this season. I say to the kids every year that high school sports are the most special kind of sports in your life. They want to play."