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An opening night like no other

It was the official start of the 2020 football season Friday night for Panther Valley High School and numerous other high schools from throughout the area and the state.

But this opening night was a lot different from other years. A pall of uneasiness lay over the stadium.

There were few fans allowed through the gates, anyone on school grounds not playing had to wear a mask, the refreshment stands were closed and the band played in front of an empty grandstand.

Normally at Panther Valley, the grandstand is packed not only on opening night but for most games. Friends meet up with old friends. Students attend to cheer on friends on the field and interact with fellow classmates in the bleachers.

But Friday the bleachers were virtually empty. There was no loud roars from the stands.

Yet, the band played its heart out as though it was a packed house, the Panther cheerleaders went through their routines with zest and seriousness and even the Panther mascot danced like everyone was watching.

The Panthers opened their season against Lehighton, who normally would have as many or more fans than the Panthers. Instead, not a single Lehighton fan was permitted to attend.

It’s the 2020 version of high school football throughout Pennsylvania - the COVID-19 pandemic version.

Football season was actually scheduled to begin two weeks ago. Uncertainty on whether fall sports would be allowed to be held at all forced not only the delay of the opening season, but a revision in schedules. Some regional leagues still haven’t started their fall seasons.

It’s not only football, but other fall sports like volleyball, field hockey, soccer and tennis that are affected by the COVID-19 virus.

In football, Panther Valley wasn’t supposed to play Lehighton this year. Marian Catholic opened Friday against Jim Thorpe. These two teams weren’t expected to play each either.

That’s because the Schuylkill League, of which all four teams are members, was supposed to have a football co-op with the Colonial League this season. It would have allowed schools to play opponents with similar enrollments, which likely would mean more competitive games. Instead several of the big school teams in the region met smaller schools on the opening weekend, leading to blowout for victories for Lehighton, Jim Thorpe and Tamaqua (over Shenandoah).

Meanwhile, the Schuylkill-Colonial co-op was put off until next season.

Rules regarding play during the pandemic vary among the schools.

For the Panther Valley game, the Panther Valley band was permitted to perform, Lehighton couldn’t bring its band or cheerleaders. In most cases, bands and cheerleaders won’t be going to away games this year.

The reason is because state guidelines say only 250 people are allowed to attend outdoor events. It doesn’t matter if the event is in a courtyard or a school stadium that holds thousands of people. The same rule applies, making it difficult for athletic directors and other school officials to decide who can attend.

The 250 total includes the football players, coaches and managers from both teams, as well as the game officials, even though they remain in an area of the stadium far from potential spectators.

Some fans lined the fence around the stadium to watch the game at Panther Valley.

Blue Ridge Communication TV 13 televises some games. It revised its schedule to accommodate more schools so that parents and viewers in general can watch the games at home.

For example, this Friday night Blue Ridge will televise the Marian at Panther Valley game. Lehighton was scheduled to play at Tamaqua on Friday night. That game was changed to 1 p.m. Saturday so the local TV station can broadcast it as well.

It’s unlikely this season will see homecoming events, the honoring of parents and the salute to knee-hi football players like some teams do.

For indoor sports, the scenrio is even worse as attendance is limited to 25 people. This means most likely only the teams, coaches and officials will be permitted.

Even the media won’t be able to attend volleyball games.

There was a bright side to the strange opening night, however.

Because despite the fact that teams were playing in front of a nearly empty stadium, at least they were playing.

The football players seemed happy to be out on the field.

Teams played hard, utilizing the plays and skills they achieved from weeks of practicing - during a time when a night even as weird as Friday seemed uncertain.

Many still wonder whether the entire season will be achieved. The answer to that question will be resolved over the upcoming days and weeks.

But, at least for now, high school sports are being played across the Times News coverage area and the state of Pennsylvania.