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High school sports: Collier, Lee private schools also in waiting game with FHSAA

Greg Hardwig
Naples Daily News

Community School of Naples, First Baptist, and St. John Neumann aren't Collier County Public Schools, so last Wednesday's announcement that public schools were pushing back the start of fall practice until at least Aug. 24 did not affect them.

But Thursday night's ruling by the FHSAA Board of Directors that mandated the same date before practices can start did mean they could not move forward with practices due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A week ago Monday, the same board had said that schools had the option of starting fall practices July 27, the original start date, but were not required to do so. But the Thursday ruling took that away.

St. John Neumann High School football coach, Damon Jones, congratulates his team for a phenomenal win against the  Glades Day School on Friday, November 16, 2018, at St. John Neumann High School in Naples.

"We're starting school Aug. 12 and we'll move forward," First Baptist Academy athletic director and football coach Billy Sparacio said Monday. "We're doing everything we can as a school, not just athletics, to mitigate and limit as many risks as we can. That's what we're trying to do."

Southwest Florida Christian Academy athletic director Mike Marciano said his Fort Myers school was planning on a delay by starting fall practices on Aug. 10.

"That was the initial indication that the FHSAA was giving," he said. "We were prepared to give two more weeks and go on the 10th. ... I'm comfortable with the 24th. we're still praying that we can start on the 24th and we won't get another delay. That's my worry is what's going to change between now and then?"

The three Collier private schools with football teams have approached dealing with those a little differently. While Community School and St. John Neumann, the latter of which is part of the Diocese of Venice, have had some type of waiver for student-athletes to sign regarding possible exposure, First Baptist has not. In Lee County, Southwest Florida Christian Academy also has not.

"We've sent out constant communication to our families," Marciano said. "We're doing the temperature check and the questionnaire every single day. 'Have you had a fever or cough, been around anybody with COVID?'"

More:Collier, Lee high school teams in limbo as FHSAA prepares plan for practices to begin

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Sparacio stressed that summer workouts are voluntary, so that's part of it.

"We ask our parents to take a responsible leadership role in monitoring the symptoms of your kids," said Sparacio, adding that includes temperature checks. "We need to be smart. If you're not feeling good, stay home."

Head coach Paul Selvidio talks to the whole team after the practice on Tuesday, July 30, 2019, at the Community School of Naples

Neumann athletic director and football coach Damon Jones also has put some responsibility in the kids' hands.

"It's up to you guys," he said. "If you want to have seasons, you've got to do what you're being asked to do, even when you're not around us (coaches).

"You've got to talk to your families. You've got to take responsibility."

Community School (320 students), FBA (209) and Neumann (276) all have much fewer students to deal with than any of the county's public schools, which range from 1,681 at Barron Collier to 2,355 at Gulf Coast, according to FHSAA population reports from the fall of 2019.

The same goes for Lee private schools such as Southwest Florida Christian (185), Evangelical Christian (214), and Canterbury (293), although Bishop Verot (726) is bigger than those three combined.

Those lower enrollment numbers translate into lower participation numbers, so that has made following social distancing guidelines easier.

For example, with a roster in the 20s, Jones can rotate his football players in groups between outside workouts and indoor weight room drills without much trouble. He said one difference in the weight room, besides the more obvious practice of sanitizing equipment between use by players, is that a coach who is wearing a mask serves as a spotter instead of a fellow athlete.

First Baptist Academy head coach Billy Sparacio calls out plays during the Lions' first game back since Hurricane Irma struck against Tarpon Springs on Sept. 22, 2017.

Marciano, Sparacio and CSN athletic director Bart Weiss said they also have staggered workouts in football as well as other sports, and all are following social distancing guidelines and sanitizing.

"We've split them into three or four groups depending on how many kids are here," Marciano said.

All three schools also have dedicated trainers, so that helps provide another layer of making sure athletes are healthy.

The Private 8 Conference includes schools from both Collier and Lee. Community School, First Baptist, Seacrest and St. John Neumann are from Collier, with Bishop Verot, Canterbury, Evangelical Christian, and Southwest Florida Christian in Lee. 

The league does not include football, but Marciano, who is the conference commissioner, also is trying to coordinate a framework of how other fall sports -- boys and girls cross country, boys and girls golf, boys and girls swimming, and girls volleyball -- could take place.

"We want to get on the same page as far as fans, as visiting teams, officials, just to make sure we have the same philosophies, protocols and verbiage for when we go to each other's schools," he said.

Jones said his athletes all have daily temperature scans. He could not comment on whether a Neumann student-athlete has had a positive case. Weiss said no one from CSN has tested positive.

Weiss said since June 1, Community School has had summer school and also had camps and clinics on its campus, but all involved CSN students.

"We didn't have any outside people on campus," he said.

While FBA and Southwest Florida Christian are scheduled to start school on Aug. 12, Community School and Neumann are scheduled to start classes on Aug. 17. So regardless it will be a different environment since in a normal year, fall sports already would have started practice before the beginning of school.

Weiss said CSN will have spacing, masks and shields in place, and students also have the option of being in attendance on some days but working remotely on others because all classes will be live streamed. SFCA also will have a blended option for students to watch live or recorded lessons.

Meanwhile, the private schools, just as all of the schools in the FHSAA, will wait on the Board or the organization to provide further guidelines on how the delay to the start of fall practices will affect their respective schools' sports seasons. Boys and girls cross country, boys and girls golf, boys and girls swimming, and football and girls volleyball are all played in the fall.

"Our school wants to provide our kids with what they deserve in a high school experience," Sparacio said. "I struggle. It's one of those tough things to wrap your mind around.

"I'm not making light of a pandemic that our country is going through and the world is going through. We're going to do everything we need to do to mitigate that. And if we say, well wait a second, we've got to make a change here, then we will. But it's really hurting our kids. I want them to have the opportunities that other kids have had in the past."

Greg Hardwig is a sports reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @NDN_Ghardwig, email him at ghardwig@naplesnews.com. Support local journalism with this special subscription offer at https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/