ROTTERDAM — A hardwood basketball court may not seem, well … huggable.
Bella Petrocci gave it her best shot, though.
Allowed to dribble and shoot — but not much else — on a real court for the first time since pretty much forever on Tuesday, Mohonasen High School’s freshman point guard embraced the opportunity, almost literally.
“I had my friend Jahddah [Lennon] record me when I first got in, and I was on the ground, I was so happy,” she said with a laugh on Thursday.
“It was … heart-warming.”
For someone who has been passing a basketball to the chimney at her house because of COVID-19 restrictions, the start of practice for a varsity season that might begin with actual games on Nov. 30 (but might not) was a welcome development for Petrocci and her Mighty Warriors teammates.
Basketball falls in the “high-risk” category for high school sports in New York state, so schools have been slow to get the ball rolling even with the most rudimentary form of involvement. Using state Department of Health and New York State Public High School Athletic Association guidelines, Mohonasen is one program that has flipped the possession arrow in its direction, while implementing a wide range of rules and practices to eliminate physical contact and maintain proper spacing.
The Mighty Warriors “opened” the 2020-21 preseason on Tuesday and had their second practice on Thursday with individual skill drills in an open gym format, per NYSPHSAA rules. The association’s 42-page “Return To Interscholastic Athletics” document says out-of-season school-sponsored activities must be optional and available to all students.
It’s unclear how many other Section II basketball teams have begun open gym practices, but the Mohonasen girls and boys are forging ahead, with no actual game schedule in place. Just getting to the point where they can hold a normal practice will be a big breakthrough, Petrocci said.
“That’s going to be great, I can’t wait for that day, and hopefully it’ll be soon, but if not, we’ll just keep going,” she said.
“I gave up trying to predict any of that a long time ago,” head coach Doug Holden said. “When we have a schedule, we have a schedule. We’re going to be ready to go on Nov. 30. But who knows, like everything else, it could change.”
Under the rules of Mohonasen’s open gym practices, the players must wear masks and maintain social distancing at all times.
Athletic director David Bertram credited Mohonasen superintendent Shannon Shine and the school board for supporting the start of basketball, with a strict eye on DOH and NYSPHSAA and guidelines.
To keep the court from getting crowded, half the team is in the gym and the other half works out in the weight room next door for an hour, then they trade places for another hour.
Players must pass a COVID-19 screening attestation and get a temperature check before stepping on the court each day, then everyone gets a basketball — and basket, during shooting drills — to herself.
And if a teammate’s shot crazily kicks off the rim and bounces into your area, let it go. She’s got to go track it down for herself, since players aren’t allowed to handle anyone’s basketball but her own.
“But that’s how you communicate in basketball, with the ball,” Holden said. “So that’s limiting in itself. But, really, if I told them all they had to shoot sitting down, they would do it. They understand the rules, they understand the ramifications if we do it wrong and just go out and do whatever we want. Then they can’t come back again until it’s all clear.”
“It’s definitely difficult, but I think we can all work together and talk to each other and communicate with the masks, [and then] we’ll be good for when they’re gone,” Petrocci said.
“In another way, it makes us work that much harder. When we’re finally done with the masks and we’re finally playing games again, it’ll make it feel that much better.”
Petrocci would’ve been playing AAU and participating in camps over the summer, but stayed home and drilled with her dad.
If he was at work, she said she’d work on her passing by hitting the side of her chimney. It was always open.
As far as the masks go, Holden said he expected the kids to adhere to the rules, for no other reason than that’s what they’ve been doing for months now.
“It’s kind of what their lives have been, anyway, so we’re applying it to basketball,” he said. “The hardest thing to do is not pass to each other, which is ingrained in them, and not touching somebody else’s basketball. We have to stay on top of that.
“I think we underestimate the adaptiveness and the resiliency of the kids. Us old people, we’re like, ‘Oh, my god.’ They just do it. That’s the way it is, and we could learn a little bit from them. Just the mask-wearing alone. They don’t go anywhere without a mask.”
“They’re just so excited to be on the court, on the field, in the weight room,” Bertram said. “You can’t see the smile on their face, but you can see the wrinkle in the corners of their eyes. Like, ‘Yeah, this is great.'”
Petrocci and her teammates readily second that sentiment.
The fluid, ferocious chaos of basketball may have been missing from Thursday’s practice, with players shooting alone, dribbling alone, each with her own basket.
Holden is mixing in team-building activities to keep the communication lines open on the court, so the network will be ready to crackle when the team actually gets to be a basketball team that plays … basketball. For now, they do what they can, play by all these new rules and think about what it’ll be like to tip off for an actual game.
“I can only imagine,” Petrocci said, eyes widening above her mask.