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Catholic school athletic directors tackle challenges with fall sports set to begin Sept. 28

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Archmere forces a fumble as Mount Pleasant drives deep in Auks territory in the season opener from 2019. Football will return in October. The Dialog/Jason Winchell)

Now that the state Board of Education has approved the decision to move ahead with fall sports, officials at the Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Wilmington are busy preparing for practices, which begin on Sept. 28, and games, the first of which can be played on Oct. 19 in all sports except football, which will kick off on Oct. 23.

Each school or district in the state has the option to participate in fall sports or stay idle, but all six Catholic schools are moving ahead with plans to play. It’s a lot of work, but the athletic directors said they and their school administrators will do what is necessary to get their students back on the field and into the gym.

“I would definitely say that the kids are excited about getting back to their normal routine,” said Matt Smith, the athletic director at Saint Mark’s High School.

Padua will have the chance to defend its state volleyball championship. The Dialog/Mike Lang

When sports get going on the 28th, it will mark the first time that high school athletics have been active in Delaware since the coronavirus stopped school and related activities in mid-March. The final two rounds of the boys’ and girls’ state basketball tournaments, along with the entire spring schedule were canceled. In August, the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association executive board voted to hold three condensed seasons beginning in December, but on Sept. 10, it reverted back to a modified traditional model. The state board of education must approve DIAA decisions and did so Sept. 17 by a narrow 4-3 majority after more than three hours of discussion.

The biggest difference between August and September was the decision of the state Division of Public Health and Gov. John Carney to allow football to be played. Football is the most popular spectator sport, and its athletes account for 23 percent of those playing high school sports in the fall.

The athletic directors have been working on plans continuously, but with a firm start date fast approaching, the pace has picked up.

“I’m all Zoomed out,” Smith said. “I’m putting plans together for indoor and outdoor facility use. It’s not what I’m used to, let’s put it that way.”

His counterpart at Archmere Academy, David Oswinkle, said he would prefer to be out monitoring his coaches and athletes this time of year, but 2020 is a different animal.

“In my 22 years as an athletic director, I’ve never had to work harder on manuals and policies,” he said.

Ursuline field hockey will return in October. Dialog file photo

They will be toiling over the next few weeks to get all of the logistics worked out. Sue Heiss, the athletic director at Ursuline Academy, said scheduling is a potential hurdle for the Raiders and perhaps some of the other Catholic schools.

“We’re such a small conference. The bigger conferences are planning [to play] within themselves. It’s really hard for us to get a schedule. We’re really having a hard time getting volleyball and field hockey,” she said.

At Padua Academy, athletic director Lauren DiSabatino is working on scheduling as well. Part of the issue is waiting to hear which, if any, schools will not be fielding teams this fall. She also wonders if the public schools will be willing to play nonconference games.

“Right now we’re waiting for schools to make their decisions on whether they are going to play or not,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll have some space to put some of us on their schedule.”

St. Elizabeth will be playing a Diamond State Athletic Conference schedule this season, a year before the Vikings formally join that league, athletic director Marvin Dooley said. That has helped immensely with scheduling. Archmere is also a member of the DSAC.

Wesley Gant will be in goal for St. Elizabeth again this season. Dialog file photo

The Vikings’ football team, which Dooley coaches, was set to play its home games at the new Abessinio Stadium this fall, but Dooley said he is looking at possible alternatives if Abessinio is not quite ready to go in time. They may be on the road for most or all of the season.

All venues need to have site-specific plans approved by the state Division of Public Health, so that is another hurdle. Some of the gymnasiums and stadiums have been in use for part of the summer, including Ursuline and Saint Mark’s. Heiss said the gym at Ursuline is being used every day since their students are in school.

“We’ve had the opportunity because we’re in session, we can work out some of these problems that everybody’s concerned about,” she said. “And I get it. You do have to work it out. You have to kind of see it, live it, in order to know how to handle it. You have to be thoughtful, you have to be intentional, you have to think about all of the logistics. Everybody’s going to have to be patient with one another. The end product is, the kids will play.”

Archmere has students on campus every day, and many of them have been around for weeks doing conditioning and informal instruction with their teams, as allowed by the DIAA. That has helped, as the school is familiar with the guidelines from Public Health and the DIAA.

“I think that we’ve got some data now that we can fine-tune our process,” he said.

Saint Mark’s will be getting the field hockey uniforms ready. Dialog file photo

DiSabatino said getting approval for the Padua gym is near the top of the list for her school. “We’re trying to figure out how all the pieces are going to fit together so we can safely have sporting events in our building.”

Other details that need to be addressed include transportation and whether or not spectators will be allowed inside venues. DiSabatino said Padua normally offers transportation to practices and games for field hockey and cross country since the school does not have facilities of its own, but that is one of the issues she will be addressing over the next few weeks.

With the games beginning in mid-October, daylight will be an issue since junior varsity field hockey and soccer teams normally play after the varsity. There are also some freshmen teams. Smith said he will try to maximize opportunities for all of them, not just the varsity.

“It’s another thing we have to work out,” he said.

Oswinkle said conflicts could arise with availability of referees and facilities. Guidelines from the state have changed and could change as the season progresses. A lot of what the schools are facing is an unknown to all of them. How teams will be selected for their various state tournaments needs to be determined, for example.

He acknowledged the burden they feel to keep their students healthy. “We’re ultimately responsible for what’s happening. We need to be able to push it forward in a positive manner to our coaches and to our kids.”

But all of the athletic directors said they are ready to tackle those challenges.

Dooley will be wearing his normal two hats, as he also coaches the varsity football team at St Elizabeth. He is as excited as his players.

“I can’t wait to get started for all of our sports,” he said. “Just change your camp schedule a little bit. As far as football goes, I have that ready to go. Every other sport, my coaches have been really great.”

Dooley is not the only AD who coaches. In fact, all six do. Heiss leads the volleyball program at Ursuline, while Scott Mosier, who could not be reached Friday morning, is the soccer coach at Salesianum School. DiSabatino is an assistant volleyball coach at Padua. Smith coaches baseball at Saint Mark’s, and at Archmere, Oswinkle is an assistant for the boys lacrosse team.

Heiss concurred with Dooley about the anticipation to get going. “This is what I wanted, and our school wanted, to have sports in the right order, and now. Just a little bit delayed. Everybody in the state, we just wanted the kids to have this opportunity to play, thankfully.”