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Sports Have No Off-Season

For area high school athletes participating in baseball, softball, tennis, and track & field, the dawning of March 6 was anticipated by all. The date marked ‘the official’ beginning of practice permitted by the PIAA for spring sports.

South Williamsport softball coach Tom O’Malley spent hours before his squad’s afternoon practice time riding a tractor — preparing the soft infield dirt for the upcoming workout. Coaches throughout the area were doing similar chores, ensuring everything was ready. After a mild winter and a hint of spring in the air, both players and coaches were eager to proceed with outdoor workouts.

But just when things were ready to go, Mother Nature and Punxsutawney Phil made sure they were not among the forgotten by greeting all with a blanket of wet, heavy snow on day two of the athletic proceedings. Despite the spring sports label, next week’s official arrival of the season was not truly ready for an early arrival.

Despite the PIAA’s March 6 blessing, the date was not the first workout for any of the spring sports squads. In many cases, those preparations have been underway since early January, with coaches conducting ‘voluntary workouts’ to develop skills and evaluate players’ talents. While useful for a team’s preparation purposes, the growing practice presents a bit of a wild, wild west environment.

A decade or so ago, the PIAA opted to relax what had been firm starting dates for each season’s team practice to commence. The state’s governing scholastic sports body truly found itself between the proverbial ‘rock & a hard place.’ While hoping to maintain the sanctity of each sport’s seasonal play, the growing reality of ‘everybody’s doing it’ presented a monumental policing challenge.

Such practice restrictions were greatly relaxed, and although some guidelines still exist as to what can and cannot be done during teams’ off-season, creative coaches can and do find ways to conduct such workouts undaunted.

Adding to the dilemma is the recent change in season’s start instituted by the PIAA. Beginning with football, each season now starts one week earlier than what had been the case. Football teams are now playing regular season games in August, basketball teams are playing before December’s arrival, and the spring sports squads have been moved up a week to early March.

While the change provides most spring sports teams the opportunity to conclude their seasons prior to high school commencement activities (except for state finals competitions), the earlier practice start dates exasperate the multi-sports athletes’ time and dedication to the sports he/she may be currently playing and whatever sport may be next on the schedule.
I have long been a proponent of high school athletes playing multiple sports. The smaller schools need athlete participation to be competitive and, in some cases, need them just to have numbers to field teams. But playing multiple sports can put student-athletes in difficult situations, and the problem doesn’t seem to have any seasonal specification.

During the summer, many athletes participate in a variety of baseball, soccer, and basketball activities. At the same time, the fall high school coaches are expecting these same athletes to begin spending more time getting ready for the fall season. As the fall season is underway, basketball coaches are conducting open gyms, and fall coaches are concerned their athletes may get injured in these off-season activities. When basketball and wrestling are in-season, baseball, softball, and football coaches and conducting off-season workouts.

The cycle seems never-ending, and often the athlete that truly likes to play multi-sports is caught in the middle. A solution seems simple — play the in-season sport, and move on to the next sport when that season is completed. All that would take is cooperation and understanding of the parties involved.

The winter sports season has produced excitement and memorable moments for many of the area schools. Many basketball teams earned their way into the state tournament field, and Chocolate Town was the final destination for a bevy of District IV wrestlers hoping to bring home gold.

The NCAA March Madness currently has the sports world’s center stage, but the high school seasons get underway by month’s end. Bundle up and get out and enjoy the talents on display by so many young people.

Congratulations to those who compete and the coaches that guide them. May the three-sport athlete continue to survive in what is becoming an ever-demanding sports environment.