‘Low’ and ‘moderate’ risk winter high school sports can start Nov. 30; authorization still needed for ‘high’ risk sports

Shenendehowa's Kaitlyn Watrobski with the ball against Niskayuna's Ivian Owens and Heather Schmidt during their high school basketball game at Niskayuna High School on Jan. 31.

Shenendehowa's Kaitlyn Watrobski with the ball against Niskayuna's Ivian Owens and Heather Schmidt during their high school basketball game at Niskayuna High School on Jan. 31.

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

The outlook for the start of the season for “high” risk winter sports grew dimmer Monday, and the prospects for “low” and “moderate” risk indoor sports were the subject of much confusion for several hours before it was clarified late in the afternoon that those sports are able to begin their seasons Nov. 30 as currently scheduled.

During a conference call with reporters held by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday, state budget director Rob Mujica said: “We’re not inclined to open the winter sports at this time,” with the lone exceptions of Alpine and Nordic skiing.

That led to a flurry of speculation that the remaining “low” and “moderate” risk winter sports — bowling, indoor track and field, gymnastics and boys’ swimming and diving — would not be permitted to start their seasons on time.

Approximately four hours later, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association provided clarification.

“After consultation with state officials today, NYSPHSAA has confirmed that low & moderate risk winter sports (bowling, gymnastics, indoor track & field, skiing and swimming & diving) are permitted to be played,” executive director Robert Zayas said in a statement posted via the NYSPHSAA’s Twitter account.

The statement clarified that state authorization for “high” risk winter sports — basketball, ice hockey, wrestling, competitive cheerleading and volleyball — to begin play has yet to be provided and that the “high-risk sports start date continues to be examined and will be revised if needed but is contingent upon authorization from state officials.”

Monday’s flurry of announcements and confusion came as the state faces a recent uptick in coronavirus cases. The state announced 3,144 positive COVID-19 tests Monday — with a positivity rate of 2.82% — and 1,444 hospitalizations across the state.

Mujica’s answer Monday set off a chain of speculation that left many athletic administrators desperate for clarification from either NYSPHSAA or the governor’s office.

“I can’t say that I didn’t consider that [there] might be some revisions, restrictions, perhaps some new ones because of the indoor element,” Section II executive director Ed Dopp said in a phone interview prior to Zayas’ statement, “but I was not under the impression that we were not going to have approval to move forward following those new restrictions with the ‘low’ and ‘moderate’ risk sports.”

It was important, Zayas said in a phone interview, to make sure any confusion was clarified.

“I think, sometimes, in a situation like this, people that don’t truly understand what’s happening behind the scenes have no idea,” he said. “They want an immediate response, and that’s not the way these situations work.”

While the clarification provided Monday afternoon means that the “low” and “moderate” risk sports can continue to proceed as planned for the Nov. 30 start date, it still leaves “high” risk sports waiting for any answer as to when, or if, play will be able to begin for them this winter.

Mujica said in a conference call last month that the state would be providing updated guidance for “high” risk sports in November, but that has yet to come and Monday’s announcement casts doubt on when the green light for those sports might come.

Multiple Section II athletic directors opted to keep an optimistic outlook for “high” risk winter sports, even if it means pushing back the start date for competition.

“I’m still holding out hope and being optimistic,” Schalmont athletic director Matt Ronca said. “I’m still hoping, even if we push the start date, we get some type of seasons in for all our winter sports. I know all the ADs and schools have been working hard to make this happen. There’s some things you can do now, there’s some you can’t until you get more guidance. Whatever we have to do, we’ll do it.”

“I’m going to continue to hold hope out until we get the final guidance of what will and won’t be allowed,” said Columbia athletic director and Suburban Council president Michael Leonard.

Leonard touted the Suburban Council’s success with its fall season — the Suburban is the only league in Section II that sponsored every “low” and “moderate” risk sport this fall — as evidence that a similar plan can work in the winter.

“We made it work well in the Suburban Council,” he said. “We came up with a lot of great safety protocols and procedures. It’s worked out pretty good and given a great opportunity to our kids. I’m just hoping for the same thing for our winter athletes.”

Shenendehowa athletic trainer Rick Knizek, who was a member of the NYSPHSAA COVID-19 Task Force this summer, said he believes there is an opportunity to follow safety guidelines similar to those put in place for fall sports that would facilitate some “high” risk winter sports — specifically, basketball and ice hockey.

“We’ve already demonstrated in the fall that we can play field hockey and soccer with masks,” Knizek said. “It can be done, it can be done successfully and I really thought that would translate into the opportunity to play a sport like basketball.

“In ice hockey, you’re going to have double the protection [with a full face mask].”

Shenendehowa is currently holding off on offering physicals for athletes in “high” risk sports until the state authorizes those sports to play.

According to the NYSPHSAA’s 2019-20 participation survey, there are more teams in basketball than any other sport sponsored by the state. In Section II, there were 6,892 athletes participating in boys’ or girls’ basketball at some level last year on 590 teams. More than 3,000 Section II athletes competed in one of the other “high” risk sports last winter, split between wrestling, ice hockey, competitive cheerleading and a handful of boys’ volleyball teams.

Receiving clarification on “low” and “moderate” risk sports does leave plenty of opportunities for students statewide, Zayas said.

“There’s 50,000 kids that will be able to participate this winter,” he said, “and I think that’s a good thing.”

Staff writer Stan Hudy contributed to this report.

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