As COVID-19 infection rates rise, chance for ‘high’ risk winter HS sports comes into question

File photo from last season. Kareem Sanders of Schenectady, left, guards Shenendehowa's Jake Reinisch
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File photo from last season. Kareem Sanders of Schenectady, left, guards Shenendehowa's Jake Reinisch

The winter athletic season in Section II is scheduled to begin in mid-December for some teams, and in early January for others.

Do they want to play? Yes.

Are they all going to get the chance to play? That is not so easily answered.

“My mindset is to be positive, but a lot of indicators point to a season in jeopardy,” Mekeel Christian Academy Head of School and boys’ basketball coach Chad Bowman said.

On Dec. 14 the state’s “low” and “moderate” risk sports like bowling, boys’ swimming, gymnastics and skiing can begin practicing for the winter season. The state’s “high” risk sports that include basketball, wrestling, ice hockey and competitive cheer have an arbitrary Jan. 4 start date, pending approval from the New York State Department of Health and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

It is those “high” risk sports as classified by the state DOH that are most in question as COVID-19 positivity rates locally and beyond steadily climb.

“It’s above us right now,” Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk athletic director Bob Dorrance said. “We are still in a holding pattern.”

“I felt so good coming off the fall, but that was short-lived because we don’t know where we’re going with the high risk sports,” Shenendehowa athletic director Chris Culnan said.

When Section II began its fall athletic season practices on Sept. 21, the Capital Region positivity rate was 0.5 percent (3,630 people tested, 17 tested positive), and on Friday the positivity rate was 3.4 percent (5,070 people tested, 173 tested positive).

“The next week will tell a lot,” Schoharie athletic director and boys’ basketball coach Shane Barton said in reference to Thanksgiving gatherings and their potential impact.

“We’re seeing an increase with the numbers across the country and within our own state,” Cuomo said in a recent news release. “It started with the fall, and it’s going to continue and probably worsen in the winter.”

Cuomo added that New York is “doing phenomenally well” compared to the rest of the country.

Even so, with that rise in COVID-19 cases and its potential for spread being higher indoors, there’s a genuine concern out there that “high” risk sports will not be permitted in the coming months.

“I’m thinking it’s 50-50,” Dorrance said. “I’m always trying to be cautiously optimistic. It depends on the governor, and if he says, ‘OK,’ we’ll figure out a way to do it safely.

“The kids want to play. Speaking for myself, the kids need to play.”

“I believe in the value of sports and activity. In Schenectady, bouncing a ball is therapeutic, rebalancing,” Schenectady girls’ basketball coach Carol Lupo said. “It takes their mind off things. It puts them in a place away from the normal chaos that’s going on.”

Bowman continues to hope until he hears different. Bowman’s Lions were among the Section II basketball teams that were denied a state tournament opportunity when that event and some other state-level competitions were canceled at the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York early last March.

“One thing sports teaches you about is being prepared. If the ball is hit to you, you need to know what to do,” Bowman said. “We have been contemplating multiple scenarios, and we hope we get the green light. You can’t worry about things you can’t control, but you can control your mind-set and your outlook.”

Barton said his outlook toward the winter season has changed.

“As we were going through the fall, I did feel hopeful,” said Barton, who saw his fall Western Athletic Conference teams compete in golf, cross country and girls’ tennis. “We got through them incident free, and if not for the [COVID-19] spike, I might feel different, but my gut feeling is I don’t see the governor giving it the OK. At the same time, I’d love to see it happen.”

So many others would, too, even with face masks and empty gyms and tests and more tests.

“I was watching the Syracuse [basketball] game the other night, and we can do this,” Lupo said. “Just give us the opportunity, even if it’s in our own pod. If we fail and something goes wrong, we’ll have to reevaluate.”

“I hope we are going to have ‘high’ risk sports, all sports,” Culnan said. “With what we accomplished in the Suburban Council [in the fall season], we showed through the efforts of our athletic directors, coaches and students that it can be done and be done safely.”

“Everyone feels we want our kids in school,” Mohonasen athletic director David Bertram said. “If we are able to do that, and offer sports and do it safely, I’m all for it.”

Culnan is worried about Cuomo making a broad-stroke decision concerning the state’s “high” risk sports.

“I don’t understand why athletics in New York state are all lumped into the same category,” Culnan said. “I wish that the powers that be would take a look at it. I think if schools are open, it should be up to that school — the superintendent, board of education, athletic director — to decide if they can play sports.”

Section II conducted a fall season that was an abbreviated some-schools-did, some-schools-didn’t venture absent of the “high” risk sports of football and volleyball after a decree from the state’s highest authorities. The fall campaign ended in the third week of November when the Suburban Council conducted championship tournaments in several sports.

“We’ve got to be grateful we got the whole season in,” Saratoga Springs field hockey coach Jo-Anne Hostig said after her team lost to Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake in a Suburban Council tournament semifinal game. “This was gravy.”

COVID-19 did have an impact on the fall season, though the number of incidents that originated from student-athletes is undetermined.

The Shenendehowa boys’ soccer team and the Schenectady girls’ soccer team started late due to COVID-19 issues.  Late in the season, Averill Park called off the final week of its fall sports participation in response to a COVID-19 situation, another led to the Colonie boys’ soccer team forfeiting a Suburban Council quarterfinal game against Shenendehowa, and afterward, still another case led to the cancellation of the Suburban Council girls’ soccer final between Shaker and Shenendehowa just before it was scheduled to start.

“The Suburban Council did it successfully,” said Bertram, whose Mohonasen program, like the rest in the Colonial Council, was limited to fall golf and girls’ tennis. “You were seeing cases not tied to athletics.”

Section II Executive Director Ed Dopp said the fall season went better than he had anticipated.

“We got more than I thought we would get,” Dopp said. “Our goal as a section was to provide our student-athletes with an opportunity to compete in the safest manner, and our schools that participated went above and beyond to provide that opportunity. They did a great job. The alternative – and you can ask the spring athletes about it — was to not play a single contest.”

The entire 2020 spring sports season was taken away due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and for some time, the fate of the fall season was in limbo.

“I think there’s a good chance for the track kids and the baseball and softball kids,” Barton said. “There’s less contact in those sports, and based on the success of the fall, I feel good about the spring.”

Before the spring, the March and April “Fall II” season for the fall teams that were held back in the past few months is also on the tentative Section II athletic slate, but first things first.

Maybe.

“We need the green light to do it,” Culnan said of the “high” risk sports. “If we get it, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be without challenges. You can have athletics, but they’re just going to look different.”

Categories: High School Sports, News, Sports

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