NJSIAA pushes back start to fall sports by one month

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the state’s governing body for high school sports, announced last week that it will delay the official start to the fall sports season by approximately one month, with the hope of stemming the tide of the coronavirus COVID-19 among the ranks of high school athletes in the Garden State.
The ruling was announced late last Friday, almost unannounced and certainly without warning or fanfare.

After forming a special advisory task force, comprised of athletic directors from all around the state, the NJSIAA announced that summer preparations for the fall campaign have been pushed back from mid-July until August 28.

Then, there will be a two-week hiatus, when coaches cannot be in contact with their players except for virtual online sessions, from August 29 through Sept. 13, with official practices then resuming Sept. 14.

Competition will then begin for girls’ tennis on Sept. 28, with the other fall sports beginning Oct. 1 and football kicking off its season Oct. 2.

The shortened seasons will then end Oct. 23 (girls’ tennis), Nov. 7 for football and Nov. 12 for all other fall sports.

There will be limited postseason play with girls’ tennis running from Oct. 24 through Oct. 31 and Nov. 13 through Nov. 22 for all other sports. Schools that do not participate in the postseason may continue to compete until Nov. 22, with the exception being those schools that still participate in Thanksgiving Day games.

However, the cutoff for all fall sports contests will be Sunday, Nov. 22, unless there is a traditional Thanksgiving Day game, but no local schools still play on Thanksgiving, so that rule applies to those schools in southern and western Jersey that still have Thanksgiving Day rivalry contests.

Needless to say, this was a drastic measure to try and secure some semblance of a fall sports schedule.

The NJSIAA’s brand new executive director Colleen Maguire, just ascended into the top spot with the retirement of former director Larry White, said that the dramatic steps had to be made.

“High school sports are school-based, so we need to first ensure all is in order with the opening of our schools,” Maguire said in a statement released by the NJSIAA. “After that, we can begin playing sports. To be clear, our goal is to return to play – while making sure that health, safety, emotional well-being, and academics come first. We have a different model than some other types of programs that are far smaller in scale and operate independently.
Added Maguire, “We have a duty to ensure that New Jersey’s schools and their more than 1.5 million students and teachers, including 283,000 high school student-athletes, can first return to school and their academics, and then participate in extracurricular activities like sports.”

The NJSIAA’s Sports Advisory Task Force outlined eight steps that need to be addressed and met.

They include: Ensuring the health and safety of all student-athletes; re-engaging all student-athletes as soon as possible for their social, emotional and mental well-being; maximize participation across all sports and all student-athletes; keep competition as local as possible for as long as possible; develop multiple return to play models to minimize the risk of a cancelled season; maintain the ability to pivot to back-up plans when deemed necessary; minimize potential impact on the spring season and minimize the importance of postseason and statewide championships.

“The goal of the task force is to identify multiple back-up models that will be available as both school-related and health-related circumstances evolve,” a memorandum from the NJSIAA Sports Advisory Task Force read. “This plan is intended to allow schools and leagues and conferences to start planning for a fall sports season. We all recognize the fluidity of the COVID-19 pandemic and realize the circumstances are changing regularly. We will provide updates to all potential plans as timely as possible to ensure schools and leagues and conferences have time to adapt to any pivots to a different return to play model.”

The memo also included guidelines for the state’s leagues and conferences to schedule with a focus on localized competition, meaning that most independent contests will be discouraged to be scheduled. The non-league contests will become a thing of the past, at least for this season.

The NJSIAA will also try to have postseason contests, but will remain more on the sectional level, not overall state champions, like what has happened in the past with soccer and what came one step closer to reality last year with football with the introduction of sectional champions facing each other in MetLife Stadium, Rutgers Stadium and Kean University.

Rich Tuero, the head football coach at Lyndhurst High School, who played in one of those overall Group championship Super Bowl contests at MetLife Stadium, understood what has transpired this year due to the pandemic. Tuero understands that his football season will more than likely be sliced to six games.

“I’m grateful that we at least have something,” said Tuero, who guided the Golden Bears to their best football season in school history last year, winning 11 games. “I think the state did a great job of laying it all out for us. I’m trying to remain as positive as possible with the kids, so I’m grateful that we have something. Whatever the state tells us, we’ll take it.”

Jermain Johnson, the head football coach at Belleville High, said that he was prepared for whatever laws the NJSIAA instituted.

“We all have to be mentally tough for the worst possible scenario,” Johnson said. “All of the coaches I have spoken with said that they were preparing to start regular practices this week and then they got this news. If we have to shorten the season, then so be it. It’s upsetting, especially for the seniors who want to play at the next level and need to have game films in order to be seen.

Kearny head football coach Stephen Andrews also realizes that it is a tough situation dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.

“Of course, I’m disappointed,” Andrews said. “But it’s something we have to deal with and we should plan accordingly.”

Lyndhurst boys’ soccer coach Denis Jelcic is with family in Croatia, but he is keeping his finger on the pulse back at home.

“I’m actually okay with it,” Jelcic said. “My team has been getting ready on their own for three months. They work out together via Zoom meetings. I think they would be upset if they cancel the whole season, so any soccer is good soccer. With the way it is constructed, we can still get 15 games in. Last year, we played something like 10 games in 14 days, so it can be done. I’ve always been positive. With what we’ve gone through over the last six months, we should be able to handle it. If you can’t put a positive spin on what’s going on, then you shouldn’t be coaching. Any amount of soccer is good soccer. We want the kids to get ready for school and want what’s right for the mental and physical well being of our kids.”

Jelcic said that he has been amazed with the way the pandemic has been handled in Croatia.

“Here they’ve had 3,000 cases overall and 117 deaths,” Jelcic said. “No one wears a mask. Soccer is going on here like normal. School is going on like normal. We just have to be smart at home.”

Mike Rusek is the head boys’ coach at Harrison, perennially one of the strongest programs in New Jersey. Rusek said that he’s been heartbroken telling his players that their season has been shortened by a month.

“I think it’s all very disappointing,” Rusek said. “Especially when you have to tell the seniors, then you’re starting off the season a little depressed. At this point, I think we’re all just hoping to have a season. I haven’t seen the kids since mid-March. I really miss them. It would have been nice to see the kids during the summer. I wonder how the older kids are doing and how the new kids would be fitting in. It’s all been put on hold. It’s very tough.”

Tuero said that he planned on having a question-and-answer Zoom meeting online with his parents and players sometime next week.

“We have to keep everyone informed,” Tuero said.

There have been rumors of postponing the fall schedule and moving it all to the spring.

“If we have to move it to the spring, then we’ll do it,” Tuero said. “We have to keep it all as positive as possible. We have to be there for the kids.”
“If I’m going to be honest, that probably would be the best thing,” Andrews said about rescheduling to the spring. “My captains (Devin Navarez and Jack Cullen) have been running up the Belleville Turnpike three times a week. I’ve seen my guys on Veterans Field running around. The one good thing about this situation is our seniors have had to focus, step up and be leaders.”

For now, this move just delays the start. That is, for now.

“Something has to be better than what we have now,” Johnson said. “I think my kids were in a very good place getting ready in March, in the weight room every day, then everything came to a halt. Now it’s all about preparing them for the worst (which would be complete cancellation of the fall season). That would be devastating if we couldn’t play.”

“I think everyone is making sure that they’re safe,” Rusek said. “Everyone is counting their blessings that they’re healthy and safe.”

The scenarios will all be reviewed again in a few weeks.



The NJSIAA made a move last week that will delay the start of the fall sports season, like soccer shown here last fall between North Arlington (in white) and St. Peter’s Prep (in maroon) at Riverside County Park in Lyndhurst. The move, voted on by the NJSIAA last week, will delay the start of the season by a month into October. Photo by Jim Hague











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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”