After long wait, (some) high school teams start fall sports season

Loren Cuomo is shown at Monday's tennis practice. (Erica Miller)

Loren Cuomo is shown at Monday's tennis practice. (Erica Miller)

Categories: -The Daily Gazette, High School Sports, Sports

Loren Cuomo was waiting for tennis practice to begin Monday afternoon when some cars pulled into the lot off Michigan Avenue in Schenectady, and out spilled several Mohonasen soccer and volleyball players.

They are a big reason why Cuomo, Section II’s three-time reigning individual champion, was there.

Those soccer and volleyball players are now her teammates.

They need her to lead both on the court with her play . . . and during practice, where her guidance and tips will be a vital help to the newcomers on head coach Bart Metzold’s squad.

“I had to think about it,” Cuomo said of playing this fall for the merged Schenectady/Mohonasen girls’ tennis team. “With no sectionals and no states, at first I thought it might not be worth it. Coach reached out and said he could use my help, and we might win a few more matches.”

Tennis and golf are the only sports being offered at Mohonasen this fall season, which officially kicked off Monday around Section II and marked the first scholastic athletic activities allowed in the state since mid-March because of restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“A lot of girls wanted to play a sport,” Cuomo said. “They wanted to be active.”

Football, cheerleading and volleyball were the “high” risk sports the New York State Public High School Athletic Association last month said will be played next March, while soccer, girls’ swimming and cross country were sports the Colonial Council opted last week to shift to the newly-created Fall II season slated to begin March 1.

“A lot of girls are bummed. I would be, too,” Cuomo said. “At least it’s not completely gone. At least they’ll get a season, hopefully.”

With no Section II championship tournaments this fall, Cuomo and the Mohonasen soccer players have been denied an opportunity to repeat at what they each won in 2019.

With one more Section II individual title next year, Cuomo can become Section II’s first four-time individual champion since Jenny Whalen of Saratoga from 1985-88.

“I’ll be a senior,” said the 16-year-old Cuomo, who is a year-round USTA tournament competitor. “It would be nice to go out with that.”

And this season?

“I decided to play and have fun with the team,” Cuomo said. “It’s an opportunity I don’t get the rest of the year.”

Metzold will be getting an assist this fall from Cuomo, as well as Mohonasen volleyball coach Chris Abel.

“Some of our kids are total beginners. With the [COVID-19] restrictions, I can only have four players on a court,” Metzold said. “I am glad [Cuomo] will be helping out.”

It’s a good bet Cuomo will be winning some matches, too.

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Shenendehowa boys’ soccer players take part in Monday’s practice in Clifton Park. (Stan Hudy)

Like any defending champion, the Shenendehowa boys’ soccer team started its preseason Monday knowing it will receive plenty of attention from outsiders.

This year, the Plainsmen know that part of that focus on them — and all teams — will be on making sure they follow the proper safety protocols.

“We reminded them at the start of practice today,” Shenendehowa head coach Jonathan Bain said Monday in Clifton Park. “Everyone is going to watch what we do to make sure that we’re doing it right. We’re going to try to show them that we can keep kids safe and we can still give them an important part of their high school experience.”

At this point last year, the Plainsmen had played eight Suburban Council contests and two non-league matches. This year, Shenendehowa won’t play its first game until early October.

The start time of the 2020 campaign hasn’t changed senior Darien Espinal’s outlook. He likes his team’s mix of talent, and is eager to see his squad take on ones from the rest of the Suburban Council.

“We have the motivation,” Espinal said, “and I think we should do great this season.”

“I think they’re focused because they are really appreciative that they get to play,” Bain said. “It’s the pride of playing here; they’re playing for a program that has quite a tradition.”

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Amsterdam runner Trevor Dzikowicz has his temperature taken by assistant coach Stu Palczak at the start of cross country practice on Monday at Amsterdam High School. (Adam Shinder)

Trevor Dzikowicz’s senior season with the Amsterdam cross country team started with a temperature check and a health screening form — as will every practice for the foreseeable future.

Talk about a sign of the times.

“It’s going to be weird, having to do that every day,” said Dzikowicz, who in 2019 became Amsterdam’s first male runner in 17 years to compete at the state cross country championships. “But, you’ve got to stay safe, and regulations are regulations.”

Amsterdam, along with the rest of the Foothills Council, is offering only three “low” and “moderate” risk sports this fall — cross country, golf and girls’ tennis — and as practice for high school sports opened Monday, there were certainly plenty of differences.

For starters, the first person to speak to Amsterdam’s runners wasn’t coaches Kevin Wilary or Olivia Rehm, but athletic trainer Carla Pasquarelli, who reiterated the importance of mask-wearing, and obeying health and safety procedures. Then, there were the temperature checks and screening forms, but once that spiel ended and the running began, with that returned a sense of normalcy that’s been missing for months.

With the exception of the mandated masks and social distancing, of course.

“This is just what happens now,” Rehm said. “It just feels like we’re supposed to be here, and we’re here and we’ll make the best of it.”

“I feel like it’s no different,” Wilary said. “I have my mask on, but it’s no different from any other practice — and it didn’t take long to feel that way.”

Something that will be quite different?

How meets will be contested this year in the Foothills Council.

The Foothills Council schedule has each team running nine dual meets, and meets will play out like this: the visiting team will send off its 20 runners — rosters are limited to 10 boys and 10 girls — in staggered one-minute starts, then the home team will follow suit once the visiting team’s runners have all finished and left the course area.

Instead of head-to-head racing, scoring will be based on time, which will present unique challenges.

“It’s going to be something different,” Dzikowicz said, “especially not being able to race somebody, specifically, but knowing in your head you’ve got the clock you have to race.”

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Guilderland celebrates after winning its area championship last year. (File photo)

After a Cinderella season in 2019, the Guilderland field hockey team is thrilled just to get a pumpkin this fall.

The Dutch won the first Section II championship in the history of the program last year, but won’t get a chance to defend the title, with that part of the postseason having been canceled.

Still, their first practice, at Afrim’s Sports Park in Colonie, was bursting with enthusiasm and energy.

“I don’t think a lot of us got a good night’s sleep last night because we were so excited,” head coach Jen Sykes said.

“We were poised to do it again, and that was one of the difficult things. The girls know we’re playing games, but it’s not for a championship. One of our seniors, Sophia Sericolo, said, ‘We just want to play, Coach.’ It means so much for us to get out here.

“They’ve heard a lot of ‘nos’ recently. No prom, no graduation . . . a lot of things have been pulled back, a lot of rites of passage that they’ve missed. So just to get out here is pretty remarkable.”

“It’s been hard having to wonder if we were going to be able to play, and I’m super-excited to have this opportunity,” senior Ava Thomson said. “We’ll be diligent about the masks and six feet apart, all of the protocols to play, and I know our coach is going to enforce it, too. It’s [wearing a mask] definitely an adjustment and a little bit harder to breathe, but if that’s what we have to do to play, then that’s what we’ll do.”

The pandemic interruption will prevent Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake from chasing a ninth straight Section II Class B title, and Johnstown won’t get the chance to duplicate its run all the way to the state championship game. Per Suburban Council rules, the Dutch will be given two passes each for spectators to attend games.

“We’re just making the best of a bad situation, and we’re all so grateful to be playing together again,” Sericolo said. “We all want to play so bad that we’re all willing to keep our masks on. That won’t be a problem.”

Sykes said she expects Guilderland’s No. 1 fan will be her husband, Phil. He coaches the UAlbany field hockey team, and will have some time on his hands now that the Great Danes’ fall sports have been postponed to the spring

“It’s definitely been a different fall in the Sykes household,” she said with a laugh. “He’s going to be able to see every game, which is very rare. I think last year I only saw two of his games.”

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The Niskayuna girls’ soccer team huddles Monday. (Erica Miller)

In a fall season devoid of postseason title opportunities, the seniors on Niskayuna’s girls’ soccer team still have some objectives to meet.

“This team is deeply invested in tradition, and we want to carry those things on,” Niskayuna senior and third-year varsity player Emma Anderson said before Monday’s practice. “All of the things that have been created over the years, we want to make sure they continue.”

Success and constant hustle are on-field traditions for a program that last fall came within one win of the Section II Class AA title.

“We want to set a good model for [the younger players] so that when they are seniors, they’ll do the same,” said Lexi Thompson, one of the Silver Warriors’ seven 12th-graders.

It was Thompson’s goal in the second overtime that lifted Niskayuna past Shenendehowa and into the 2019 area final, where a loss to Bethehem followed.

“As soon as we lost in the sectional final, we rooted for them,” Anderson said of the Eagles. “We have a lot of respect for them.”

The ties are many between Niskayuna and Bethlehem, which, along with Ballston Spa, are the only Suburban Council schools that will not be fielding soccer teams this fall.

“I sympathize with the kids from the other schools,” Anderson said. “A lot of our teammates on our club team are not playing.”

Bethlehem would have been going after its third straight Section II Class AA title. Niskayuna won its last of those in 2016.

“I feel so bad for them,” said Thompson, referring to the Bethlehem players. “I know how hard they work.”

Written by Stan Hudy, Mike MacAdam, Jim Schiltz and Adam Shinder.

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