One domino fell, and then another, in a scholastic game that had no winner.
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association announced Friday morning the cancellation of all of its winter sport state championship events due to COVID-19 concerns, and afterward, in an expected move, Section II called off all of its title competitions, as well.
Furthermore, NYSPHSAA authorities said that while “low” risk and “moderate” risk winter sports as determined by the New York State Department of Health can be played, “high” risk sports remain on pause until authorization from the DOH and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Winter state championships for basketball, ice hockey and bowling were called off last March when the COVID-19 pandemic found its way to New York. Friday’s announcement canceled season-ending events for those sports as well as many others. The NYSPHSAA basketball championships were scheduled to be held at Cool Insuring Arena (boys) and at Hudson Valley Community College (girls), and the wrestling championships were slated to be held at Times Union Center, where Shenendehowa star Stevo Poulin won a third straight crown last February but has now been denied any possibility of a fourth.
“It’s an awful, awful thing right now,” state wrestling coordinator Marty Sherman said. “You’ve got so many high-level athletes that will not get that opportunity.”
The NYSPHSAA release said, “The cancellation of the Winter State Championships (bowling, basketball, boys swimming & diving, competitive cheerleading, gymnastics, indoor track & field, ice hockey, skiing, and wrestling) addresses membership concerns associated with increased travel, hotel accommodations, transportation logistics and the planning for meals. Furthermore, venue capacity limitations and social distancing restrictions make it increasingly difficult to ensure the safety of student-athletes, coaches, and families.”
“Over the past week, we have been deliberating,” NYSPHSAA Executive Director Robert Zayas said in a Zoom call with media members Friday afternoon. “Today, we had to make the difficult decision.”
The news was particularly difficult for the Cambridge girls’ basketball team, which won a state title in 2019, was denied a chance to repeat last winter when it was favored to do so, and Friday saw any hopes of winning it again taken away in the final season for twin stars Sophie Phillips (Rhode Island) and Lilly Phillips (UAlbany).
“I thought the two things that could beat us this year, and last year, too, was ourselves and COVID,” said Cambridge coach and the twins’ dad, Bob Phillips. “Right now, COVID is winning.”
Cambridge won’t get a chance at a fourth straight Section II Class C title, either. In 2018, Cambridge reached the state semifinals after claiming the area flag.
“Some nights, I’ll wake up and think, ‘Is this really happening?'” Bob Phillips said. “It’s so disheartening to think this team could have won three state titles in a row.”
Section II officials last month announced that its championship competitions would be called off if there were no state-level events this winter season. Both state and Section II title events were canceled in the fall season, too, though some Section II schools did compete in “low” risk and “moderate” risk sports that included soccer, field hockey, cross country, golf and girls’ swimming and diving, and some league championship tournaments and competitions were held.
“We will continue with the plan we set if the [winter] state championships got canceled,” Section II Executive Director Ed Dopp said. “Today’s announcement has taken sectionals off the table.
“We do support league-culminating events if schools are able to do that,” he continued. “We will do what we can to help that.”
Bob Phillips is hoping his team gets an opportunity to at least win another Wasaren League title.
“I told my kids to be optimistic that down the road we are going to play,” he said.
The Section II winter season is scheduled to begin Monday for “low” risk and “moderate” risk sports that include bowling, boys’ swimming and diving, gymnastics and skiing. The winter “high” risk sports of basketball, wrestling, competitive cheerleading and ice hockey had a tentative Jan. 4 start date for all NYSPHSAA schools if approved by state health and government authorities, but that approval has yet to come.
The NYSPHSAA had Nov. 16 as the original start date for the “high” risk winter sports, and moved that to Nov. 30 before adjusting again.
According to the NYSPHSAA release, the Association’s decision to postpone all high-risk sports until authorization is granted was reinforced by the increase in infection and hospitalization rates across the state.
“Getting it going by Jan. 4 is no longer feasible,” Zayas said. “We have postponed ‘high’ risk sports without establishing a target or goal date.”
Zayas said he is holding out hope that there will be a winter sports season for the “high” risk sports, even if it is a short one and includes only in-section competition.
“Our goal is to have a ‘high’ risk winter sports season. That will be dependent on when we get authorization,” Zayas said. “I am still optimistic it can be done. If and when it is not feasible, we will make that decision.”
Sherman said he would be disappointed, but not surprised, if the “high” risk sports are called off this winter.
“It doesn’t look good for high risk sports,” he said. “A member of the governor’s office said high risk sports are in danger if the up-tick continues with hospitalizations and the virus. Looking at everything I’m seeing, it’s going up.”
During Gov. Cuomo’s press conference on Friday he presented a slideshow of exposure sources from September to November.
Household/social gatherings topped the list at a 73.84 percent infection spread, and sports were seventh at 1.04.
During the question and answer session, “high” risk sports were brought up to New York State Budget Director Robert Mujica.
“If we look at the clusters, there are increasing clusters related to sports activities which puts them in the top 10 percent,” Mujica said. “That’s where they are, and there is no change right now in allowing the high risk sports activities to begin, and we don’t expect that to happen until you start to see the rates going down. We’re actually seeing them going up.”
The governor supported the decision to continue to delay “high” risk sports.
“If you look at that chart, you see sports way up towards the top on areas of spread,” Cuomo said. “Restaurant/bars is 1.4 [percent], sports is 1.04. Sports is higher than religious activities, gyms, any of that.”
The state DOH has determined that the spring sport of boys’ lacrosse and the fall sports of volleyball and football also have a “high” risk for the spread of COVID-19.Those sports must also be approved by the state DOH before commencing. If approved, some Section II football and volleyball teams have plans to play in the “Fall II” season that is set for March and April.
There has been no determination when and if the “high” risk winter sports would play later in the school year if they do not receive authorization to proceed at some time this winter. Both the “Fall II” season and spring season have been mentioned as possible options.
Stan Hudy contributed to this story.