‘Let’s go to that next step’: Basketball, other ‘high risk’ winter sports await state guidance

Shenendehowa's Rylee Carpenter and Sam Lee on rebound against Niskayuna's Olivia Olsen during their high school basketball game at Niskayuna High School on Jan. 31. (Erica Miller/Staff Photographer)

Shenendehowa's Rylee Carpenter and Sam Lee on rebound against Niskayuna's Olivia Olsen during their high school basketball game at Niskayuna High School on Jan. 31. (Erica Miller/Staff Photographer)

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

The question, asked during a recent conference call, caught Gov. Andrew Cuomo off-guard.

Cuomo’s first response to a reporter’s inquiry regarding the status of updated guidance for the “high risk” winter high school sports — basketball, wrestling, ice hockey and competitive cheerleading — was a surprised admission that the question “totally caught me” before asking state budget director Robert Mujica if he could provide any clarity.

Mujica’s response didn’t shed much definitive light on the issue, but it did at least give those wondering about what — if any — kind of season there will be for those sports this winter a more concrete timeline as to when those decisions will come down from the state Department of Health.

“We’re looking at it now in the context of what the school infection rates are,” Mujica said. “We should have them by November, that was the plan. The beginning of November.”

Many of these winter sports were the first affected by widespread shutdowns across the state at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March. Winter sports are currently set to start Nov. 30, though current state guidance only allows for competition in “low- and moderate-risk” sports.

The 2019-20 basketball season was brought to a halt before the weekend of the regional finals and never resumed. Schalmont boys’ basketball coach Greg Loiacono, whose team won the Section II Class B championship in early March and was preparing for a regional final, hasn’t been on the court with his team since the Sabres’ regional semifinal win March 10 against Ogdensburg Free Academy in Saratoga Springs.

Loiacono just got permission from Schalmont officials to begin open gym workouts in the next couple of weeks, but it’s difficult not to know when, or if, a season will begin.

“Our guys are definitely ready to go,” Loiacono said, “whenever they get the clearance.”

The start date for winter sports was pushed back two weeks by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association in order to provide more time for fall sports to complete their seasons following a delayed start.

Delays were the name of the game for fall sports. Guidance from the state didn’t come until late August, and the NYSPHSAA opted to push all “high risk” fall sports — football, volleyball and the fall competitive cheer season — into a second fall season beginning in March. Across Section II, many leagues and schools also opted to push some or all fall sports into the “Fall II” period.

It was a drawn-out process that left many coaches and athletes unsure about the status of their fall seasons until just days before practices started Sept. 21.

NYSPHSAA Executive Director Robert Zayas said the state is eager not to repeat the same waiting game for the start of the winter season.

“As soon as decisions can be made, then we are making those decisions based on the guidance that we receive,” Zayas said. “My goal continues to be to provide as many participation opportunities for our students as we possibly can.”

When asked for comment, the state Department of Health referred to Mujica’s statement from the Oct. 16 conference call.

The promise that updated guidance is coming has helped to foster a sense of cautious optimism for many Section II coaches and athletic administrators who are hopeful of a more organized start to the winter than there was for the fall.

“I know just from working in the school and working with fall coaches that it was hard to try and plan for anything when they were basically told just a few weeks or so before the season was going to start about how they could run practices and all the rules and regulations they were going to have to implement during their practices and games,” Niskayuna girls’ basketball coach Sarah Neely said. “That takes a lot of planning on a coach’s part to move forward and even start the season.”

“When they asked [Cuomo] and he was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what we’re doing about that,’ but then he asked [Mujica] and he was able to step in and say, ‘Yes, we should be able to give some guidance in early November,’ I was ecstatic,” Fonda-Fultonville athletic director and boys’ basketball coach Eric Wilson said. “I was thinking, for November 30, were they going to be giving this guidance to us Thanksgiving weekend and then we were going to have to try and get something together?”

Zayas said he considered it “encouraging” that the governor’s office commented on the status of updated guidance for the “high risk” winter sports. He added that sports are just one piece of a collective package as the state continues its path to reopening from the widespread shutdowns brought on at the onset of the pandemic.

“Movie theaters are opening now, ski resorts are opening, low- and moderate-risk sports have been doing a very good job,” Zayas said. “If you try to look at everything as a collective, I think we’re doing well, but so much is contingent on the metrics that our state officials are analyzing and examining.”

It’s in those metrics that many are pinning their hopes.

One of the biggest challenges for fall sports — and the reason the NYSPHSAA pushed back its start for fall sports from late August to Sept. 21 in the first place — was the unpredictability of students returning to school for the first time since March under unprecedented conditions.

Now, heading into the winter, there’s nearly two months of data — which is reported to the state on a daily basis — to work off.

“Early on, it was a big question mark,” Wilson said. “How were things going to work? What was school going to look like? Now that we’ve had some time to get into that groove — not a groove that everyone wants to be part of, but a groove nonetheless — we’re getting comfortable with what we’re doing during this time.

“Let’s go to that next step,” he added. “What are we going to do, and how are we going to keep it safe and give more opportunities for these kids?”

Cobleskill-Richmondville wrestling coach Justin Kimball agreed with that sentiment.

“The Colonial Council, they decided to go to Fall Season II for everything but golf [and girls’ tennis], and I think some of the thinking behind that was that we’d just reopened with all these guidelines in place and it was just too much for some districts to take on,” Kimball said. “Now that we’re a few months into the school year, maybe more districts think they’re more prepared to have athletics than they were in the fall and they feel it’s a little safer to do that. It all depends on what goes on around us and stuff that’s out of our control, really.”

For coaches and administrators used to controlling their environments, little to nothing has been in their control since March.

It makes gauging the odds of what the winter season is going to look like, or if the “high risk” sports will be permitted to play at all, extremely difficult.

“I think that’s tough to answer the question of how confident I am that they’re going to be able to play,” Zayas said. “I can tell you that I’m confident that everybody that is needed to make it happen is actively working on this.”

Neely said she was hoping that volleyball competition would have been allowed this fall, which would have given a template for how indoor sports like basketball could work during the winter.

“I guess we’re just going to have to wait and see,” Neely said.

Shenendehowa ice hockey coach Juan de la Rocha said he’s spent the past seven-plus months since his 2019-20 season ended with his confidence about what the 2020-21 season would look like swinging like a pendulum.

“Back then, I was very comfortable saying that we’re going to be OK come November,” de la Rocha said. “How I was so wrong before, I don’t want to make any predictions — even now.”

Along with boys’ and girls’ basketball, wrestling, ice hockey and competitive cheer, Section II sponsors competition in the “low risk” sports of bowling, Nordic skiing, Alpine skiing, boys’ swimming and indoor track and field, along with “moderate risk” gymnastics. Both practice and competition are allowed in those sports, while “high risk” sports are allowed to practice but can’t compete without updated state guidance.

Each “high risk” sport features unique challenges to pull off during a winter season. 

Basketball has more teams competing than any other sport offered in the state with 4,924 across all levels; wrestling involves closer physical contact and could be complicated by mask-wearing requirements; and, ice hockey works separately from the traditional Section II league structure and has numerous teams consisting of merged squads with students from multiple districts.

Coaches are also prepared to deal with a shortened schedule if that’s what is required to get a season in — even if it means competition doesn’t start until the return from winter break in January.

While the state, regional and Section II postseasons were all canceled in the fall, those are currently still on the table for the winter and Loaicono believes there’s still a chance to get that competition in, even with a condensed regular season.

“We’ve had a few weeks where we’ve had one game or no games — if you look at Regents week or midterm week — or last year before sectionals started we had a week-and-a-half, almost two weeks off,” he said. “I think you could really condense the season if you wanted to and still get sectionals in.”

The challenges are numerous, but after months of waiting there’s a determination among coaches and administrators to provide their student-athletes with a safe environment for competition.

“We’ll do whatever it takes, as long as we can keep the kids safe and healthy,” Loiacono said. “The kids have been coming to school and they’ve been great in school with the masks and staying socially distanced in the classrooms and the hallways. I think they want to get back to having what we consider a ‘normal’ life, and they’ll do whatever they can to make that happen, too.”

“I’m certainly not saying, ‘Let’s push it and get crazy with stuff,’ but let’s evolve and keep going,” Wilson said. “We’ve done a good job so far. There’s no reason to think we’re not going to continue doing that.”

Neely, a physical education teacher, has seen her students’ commitment to health and safety guidelines, and is confident those can translate into extracurricular sports.

“I know my team, and really any athlete, is just ready to play their sport again,” she said. “I think, at this point, they’ll be willing to conform to any kind of guidelines that are put in place.”

And for players such as those at Schalmont who have spent the last seven months wondering what might have been if their championship run wasn’t cut short, just getting to play this winter will be a reward.

“For our guys,” Loiacono said, “they just want to compete.”

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