One of the simple pleasures of which we’ve been looted by “the virus”—no longer a need to be more specific—is that of experiencing sporting events in person. The “Covid bubble”— literal, in the case of the current NBA and NHL playoffs in their respective cocoons, and metaphorical, but nonetheless restrictive, for youth sports—has forced fans to moderate their passions and parents to forgo watching their kids compete.
Thus, it seemed noteworthy when, last Saturday in Penn Hills, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh, the North Allegheny High School boys and girls water polo teams opened their 2020 seasons in the open air at the Olympic Swim and Health Club. Staging a late September polo match in these climes in an outdoor pool—albeit heated—is highly unusual. But, then, so are the times.[Read: After Months Indoors Suburban Pool Time Beckons Brooklyn Kids]
Results from the pool were an Allegheny sweep. The Tiger boys team beat Cathedral Prep 9-3, while the Lady Tigers captured a 15-14 decision in overtime from Villa Marie, thanks to a late three-goal comeback. His girls’ team’s frenetic finish in their first match in months was memorable for Damir Matanovic, North Allegheny head coach.
“This season has been unlike any other in my career,” he said after his teams’ double win—thanks in part to a massive amount of pre-match planning and cooperation among all present.
“Coaches, players and parents have had to stay incredibly flexible, patient and understanding,” he added. “That hasn’t been easy because we all just want to train and compete. When that’s taken away it hurts.”
Parents were able to watch their children play for the first time in months. Since the state’s Covid-19 restrictions limit total participation for indoor activities to 25, including both teams, coaches and officials, the attraction of outdoor play—with a maximum of 250 participants—was irresistible.
It was tonic for players and parents alike. Tony Melanson, whose daughter Becca was a driving force for the Lady Tigers, chipping in four goals, was ebullient.
“[A] massive relief and joyful event,” he said. “The last tournament [our teams] had played was February at Navy. If you’re a dedicated water polo player and you don’t get to play for seven months, that’s pain and mental anguish.”
Striking a balance: safety vs. the downside of not playing
Of course, the Covid threat is real, and it can be dire and sudden, with symptoms appearing only after a week or more of incubation, if at all. But, when quizzed about the safety issue, North Allegheny parents were unified in their belief that the opportunity to compete was more important for their children than continued forbearance.
Precautions had been taken and risk carefully managed throughout the training season, and they were confident that a sensible mindset would continue on game day.
“We’ve believed all along that a chlorinated pool is one of the safest environments for players to compete—[and] we’re thankful for the opportunity,” said Rick Dorman, whose daughter Marissa Dorman is a North Allegheny senior. “Seeing the joy on all the faces around the pool was wonderful—and long overdue.”
The organizers especially were mindful of the risk. Players stayed in the pool even when they were not in the field. The boys’ and girls’ teams specifically did not commingle between matches.
Parents and coaches all wore masks and kept their distance as appropriate. Even though as many as 100 spectators could watch the action, only those parents with children competing were allowed in the pool area, limiting spectators to approximately 60 at any time.
Shannon Tiepo, mother to Tyler Tiepo, a Tiger senior, fears the consequences of no play are greater than the risk of infection. “[W]e’ve been worried about not having a season this fall,” she said. “This is the year they have worked so hard for and have been looking forward to.”
A common complaint of seniors last spring was that Covid-19 cheated them of a victory lap after their high school experience. Now the concern is that another year will be lost to the virus, especially for high school athletes with higher aspirations.
“Many of these athletes are hoping to make a name for themselves in order to play at the collegiate level,” continued Tiepo.
“The coaching staff worked to keep these kids safely training all summer. To then have no tournaments or games would have been crushing.”
It’s the way polo ought to be played
For many around the Olympic Swim and Health Club pool, the conditions were reminiscent of the way the game is played in California, or—for some like Coach Matanovic, originally from Montenegro—in Europe.
“I overheard coaches saying to referees how outdoor water polo reminds them of home, when they were young,” said Randy Ziegler, father of Lady Tiger goalie Hannah Ziegler. “Water polo is generally meant to be played outdoors. I thought it was cool to experience the sport in its intended venue.”
The experience for Ziegler was that much more enjoyable as Hannah made a number of key saves down the stretch to allow her team to rally.
“Watching a water polo game in an outside venue allowed me to be closer to the action,” he said. “It gave me a new perspective of the game’s physicality.”
Bring it on! (at least for now)
George Sens, father of Tiger boys’ player Keller Sens, told his son, “You focus on the game, playing hard, competing and having as much fun as possible. Let me worry about Covid.”
Sens, whose son is a sophomore at North Allegheny, agreed that the consequences of not playing outweighed apprehensions about Covid. “As parents, we’re trying to mitigate as much risk as possible in contracting Covid for our kids and our families,” he said. “We’re also trying to provide our kids with some semblance of normalcy.”
Rick Dorman sounded a similar refrain: “After spending the last three months of the year in lock-down we were concerned that the kids would not be allowed back in school, much less playing water polo,” he said. “We could see the mental and emotional toll that living in isolation had on the players and their families—including us.
For Coach Matanovic, who has been with North Allegheny for six years—four as a head coach and two as an assistant—the payoff was worth the risks.
“I was really happy the parents and players had this experience— especially with all of the limitations and setbacks this season.” he said. “Hearing the cheers from the stands was good for everyone.”
The Tigers will again play outdoors this weekend. The forecast? Partly sunny skies and temperatures close to 80 degrees.