by Andrew Garda
While New Jersey works to find a way to allow sports to happen on the high school level, towns like Montclair are also working to figure out how to allow kids to play sports at the youth level.
Club organizations for football, soccer, even baseball and softball, are finding ways to get back on the field.
Not all of it has gone smoothly.
At the high school level, gymnastics and girls volleyball were pushed back to February, while at the youth level, the local Pop Warner football team, the Montclair Bulldogs, will not be playing this season.
Garland Thornton, head of the Bulldogs, said there were too many concerns from parents and his own organization, and so the Bulldogs decided to play it safe by not playing at all. In their league, three other teams have also bowed out for the season, and the North Jersey league is now looking to combine with a league in Central Jersey or down the shore to keep Pop Warner football going in North Jersey.
While the Pop Warner Bulldogs are keeping their cleats on the shelf this fall, the Montclair Cobras football teams will be on the field.
For Wil Young, the head of the organization as well as Montclair’s deputy police chief, the Cobras will still focus on making sure the kids learn the game and continue to focus on their academics even during remote learning, but now will do so while following the COVID-19 protocols set out by the state.
“The kids get to practice and they have to get screened, [including] temperature checks,” Young said. “You put your stuff down [and] before you can go out on a field, you’ve got to hand-sanitize up to you elbows.”
Once they get on the field for practice, the kids can take their masks off, but Young said they must continue to keep them on their person while on the field. If there is a break in the action, or when they step off the field for a meeting or at the end of practice, the masks go back on.
He also said that the league is requiring COVID-19 tests for every player.
Young said that the numbers are down a little from years past, sitting at 40 kids as of the week of Aug. 17, but hesitated to give a final tally, as sign-ups were ongoing and every day more kids were showing up.
“We usually have a slow start early, but the numbers have been going up daily,” he explained. “I think we’re almost up to 40, physically registered.”
With the Bulldogs not playing this year, the Cobras might see some crossover between the organizations as well. Some other kids are finishing up various day camps and will come when those are done.
A team needs a minimum of 15 players in order to qualify, and while the numbers are a bit low now, Young said the Cobras expect to field, at minimum, teams at the 11-under, 12-under and 13-under level.
He says he has kids 10 and under as well, and feels they have a good chance at fielding a team at that level as well.
While the players will be masked on the sidelines and go through their daily protocol before games and practices, some of the rules for spectators during games are still being worked out.
“You’ve got parents that drive the kids to these games, so what are they going to do while their kids are playing?” he said. “So my feeling is that they will be allowing just your immediate family. You know, your mother, your father, things like that. [Probably] try and keep siblings out of it, if they’re not on the field.”
Young said that regardless, social distancing and masks will be required for fans, and there might be temperature checks as well.
While autumn has traditionally been the domain of football and soccer at the youth level, there’s a long tradition of baseball and softball clubs playing while the leaves fall.
The Montclair Baseball-Softball Club always plays a fall schedule, but with the pandemic still a factor the club wasn’t sure people would be interested.
“We were surprised, I think, at how many people wanted their kids to play,” said Brad Harsch, MBSC’s COVID-19 coordinator. Harsch was appointed to not only work out the logistics and plans for returning to competitive play, but to make sure parents had someone who would answer questions about what to expect.
To figure out the best way to approach the season, Harsch said that the organization looked at other sports and what they did, including the recently completed baseball tournament for high schoolers, the New Jersey Last Dance.
“It’s modeled on a number of guidelines that different leagues have adopted, and we feel like we’ve gotten a little bit beyond what they are doing,” he said. “We looked at the local USABL league, which is based in New Jersey and is a league a lot of our teams play in.”
Established in 1985, the United States Amateur Baseball League was one of the first youth-amateur travel leagues in the tri-state area.
“We [also] got some guidelines from a sports insurance company, um, yeah, and the United States Specialty Sports Association, as well as Little League, and we looked at all their best practices, Harsch said. “We took all their practices, adopted the ones that we thought were reasonable and made sense, and distributed those guidelines to the coaches before the season.”
Baseball and softball have minimal contact, so many of the mandates are aimed at the dugout, where players and coaches are in close proximity, as well as at pregame, when temperature checks take place. Masks are to be worn in the dugouts, and social distancing and masks are encouraged for spectators.
As was the case during this summer’s Last Dance tournament, umpires will call balls and strikes from six feet behind the pitcher, so that they will not be standing on top of the catcher and batters.
One thing that both Harsch and Young mentioned was the importance of kids getting to participate in physical activity after so many months of quarantine and minimal physical exertion.
“We felt like we could go forward with the programs in a way that mitigated the risk and got the kids outside, doing something they enjoy,” Harsch said. “And for many of them, you know, it’s [also] an important developmental aspect of their youth.”