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Why Pennsylvania High School Soccer Should Be Moved to the Spring

by on November 20, 2018 5:00 AM


As we head into this Thanksgiving week I’m a little sad. Just over a week ago my wife and I ceased being scholastic soccer parents. This was our son’s sixth season playing soccer for State College area schools and his last game ended on Nov. 10 on the pitch at Cedar Crest High School in Lebanon, Pa.

Six years of driving up and down Route 322 to Mid-Penn Conference foes, and to Altoona and Reading and Loretto and many other places to follow the exploits of the Mount Nittany Middle School and State College High School teams as we watched these young boys turn into men.

As bittersweet as the moment was, any parent of a sport-playing child will tell you that it is well worth the time and effort and money. Watching your child grow and learn through these competitive experiences is the spice of life – the moments you will long remember. Like the game in Altoona when our son, the goalie, stopped a penalty kick, got an assist, and scored a goal all in one game – a trifecta for a goalie.

But I would be lying if I didn’t say when it all came to an end that, in one small way, I was glad it was over. As heretical as that may sound, I believe one or more other parents would agree with me. The reason for this is that the last few games this season, as in every other season, were played in continually worsening weather. It was mostly cold and windy but also rainy or snowy. And the forecast for continued play was only colder and windier and wetter.

Some of the boys don long sleeve shirts and tights under their uniforms and wear gloves and headbands – although a few hardy ones play in their standard kit of shorts and short-sleeve shirts. For those of us sitting in the stands, though, it sometimes seems as if you can’t possibly bundle up enough. Eventually that November cold finds its way in.

Which is why I would like to suggest that the PIAA make a change regarding when boys and girls soccer is played.

Move soccer season to the spring.

It’s not without precedent in this country. There are 13 states that schedule their school soccer seasons in the spring – the closest to us being Virginia. There are an additional seven states that play soccer in the winter – all of these states are located in the south – plus Hawaii. So 40 percent of the states in this country do not play soccer in the fall.

Currently in Pennsylvania, soccer season starts in September, finishes toward the end of October with conference and district playoffs, and runs into November with the PIAA tournament. During the season teams play two and often three games a week on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. If the season was moved to spring it could start in mid-March and be completed by the end of May. Or spread the season out a little longer – from early March to early June – to allow for only scheduling two games a week (no Saturdays!).

This would also result in the most important games – the district playoffs and PIAA tournament – to be played toward the end of spring when the weather is getting warmer, thus allowing for the best quality of play at the time when you have the best teams playing.

Another benefit of spring soccer is field availability. In the fall in Pennsylvania, there are four high school sports that use large rectangular outdoor fields for practice and games: girls and boys soccer, boys football, and girls field hockey. In the winter there are none. In the spring there are four: girls and boys lacrosse, and girls and boys track and field.

In Pennsylvania, there are 539 schools that play high school girls soccer, 568 that play boys soccer, 567 that play high school football, and 275 that play girls field hockey. That’s a lot of teams needing access to fields. However in the spring there are only 229 schools that play high school girls lacrosse, and 210 that play boys lacrosse. There are 609 that compete in girls track and field and 607 that compete in boys track and field, but those sports can usually be practiced simultaneously, and generally don’t use the large rectangular portion of the fields they are on.

So in the fall you have many, many high schools across Pennsylvania juggling practice and game schedules for four unique sports requiring large rectangular fields. One of those – football – often creates a fifth “sport” requiring a large rectangular outdoor field. That would be the school’s marching band. Moving soccer to the spring would alleviate some of these scheduling issues.

This would also improve the number of soccer games that are completed. Because of these scheduling issues I mentioned above it’s not unusual for high school soccer games to be played on fields without lights. Within the first few weeks of the fall soccer season the autumnal equinox occurs (around Sept. 21) and the days for the rest of the soccer season are shorter than the nights. As the calendar moves into October those days become so short that varsity teams will play first instead of the JV teams just to make sure they can complete their games before dark. Several times this season the State High JV boys soccer games were called because of darkness.

By switching to a spring season that starts in early or mid-March, the spring equinox would take place at or near the start of the season resulting in most of the season being played when days are longer than nights – meaning less need for artificial lights and eliminating called games.

An extra bonus for the student-athletes is that a spring soccer season would allow for more crossover participation by those boys who enjoy playing both American football and the original football (soccer). Our son was able to do both this season – with the support of Coach Orton and Coach Lintal to whom we are extremely grateful – and splitting the seasons apart would make that simpler for everyone.

Which reminds me, (a little digression here)… the State College Little Lions football team is in the PIAA 6A state quarterfinals. They play Pine-Richland at 7 p.m.  Saturday in Altoona’s Mansion Park. Head on over and cheer on the team – Go State High Football!

Back to soccer… the only possible downside of a scholastic spring soccer season is in conflicting with current “club soccer” schedules. But if a quality soccer-playing state like Virginia can overcome that small obstacle I’m certain Pennsylvania could – and might help swing the tide for all the other northeastern states that are probably encountering the exact same problems I outlined above.

Lastly, as long as I’m in a holiday requesting mood, I’d like to ask for one more thing from the PIAA: change the girls and boys soccer tournament format to the same one that football uses -- only district champs play in the tournament. Under the current soccer tournament format, a district championship doesn’t mean anything for many schools.

Using the just-completed boys 4A tournament as an example, of the eight teams that made it to the quarterfinals, only three were district champs. One of those was State College, which reached its first quarterfinals since 2011. No district champs made it to the final which was between the second-place team from District 3 and the fifth-place team from District 1. Coincidentally, the eventual champion, Wilson High School, had tied State College in the Little Lions first game of the season.

The purpose of the current format may be to celebrate parity, and I believe any of the 16 teams that started the tournament could have won (including, of course, State College). But parity is here — there’s no need to celebrate it. Of the 15 games in the single-elimination tournament, five went to overtime, and seven others were decided by a single goal. That’s parity. But a championship tournament should celebrate championship teams. If you are a district champion then you get in. If not, best wishes for next year.

Anyway, although I may be sad about the end of my career as a scholastic soccer parent, if the PIAA made one or both of the changes I outlined above, I’m certain the future experiences of the players, coaches and parents will be better. And that would make me happy.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!





John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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