After a long wait, the door is finally open for “high” risk high school sports across the state, potentially clearing a path for a number of winter sports whose seasons had been in limbo, as well as the long-delayed football season that is scheduled to begin in five weeks, though approval from local health authorities will be required for competition to finally begin.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Department of Health issued updated guidance Friday afternoon, stating that effective Feb. 1, sports given the “high” risk designation “may partake in individual or distanced group training and organized no/low-contact group training and, further, may partake in other types of play, including competitions and tournaments, only as permitted by the respective local health authorities (i.e. county health departments).”
“High” risk sports include football, basketball, wrestling, ice hockey, volleyball and competitive cheer, all of which have either had seasons delayed or rearranged while awaiting clearance from the state.
Amsterdam girls’ basketball coach Eric Duemler, who has been a vocal advocate on social media pressing officials to allow “high” risk sports to play, felt a sense of relief when the news came down.
“My first text was to the girls [on my team],” Duemler said, “and I got about 30 back from them. I talked to coaches in our league and some of the coaches that have been advocating and pretty active, and we’re just really excited.
“To go from no news for so long to looking like we may have a shot, I can’t even put words to explain how happy I am.”
For New York Public High School Athletic Association executive director Robert Zayas, Friday’s updated guidance provided a light at the end of what’s been a long, dark tunnel.
“I’m a parent, and I see the impact that this delay and not having high school sports has impacted on my own daughter,” Zayas said during a teleconference with reporters Friday night. “She’s a constant reminder as I sit across the dinner table from her every single night to just witness what’s taking place. From a parent perspective, this is great news. From an executive director of a state high school athletic association perspective, this is great news. But, it’s phenomenal news for our student-athletes.”
The NYSPHSAA is scheduled to issue an updated version of its Return to Interscholastic Athletics resource document Monday.
As many winter coaches got some hope for their season restored, football coaches who had their regular fall seasons postponed and were waiting for guidance on a “Fall II” season that’s due to start March 1 finally got some much-needed news.
“I’m shocked by this news today as I’m sure most people are,” Saratoga Springs football coach Terry Jones said. “Most football coaches I’ve talked to, we weren’t expecting this to happen.
“My view has been if they didn’t let basketball happen, then we weren’t going to have football. Up until today, it did not look like winter ‘high’ risk sports were happening.”
Though the state has given its go-ahead for “high” risk sports to go forward, the ultimate decision to allow teams to play will fall with local health departments.
According to Friday’s guidance, local authorities should make their decisions to allow competition and contact practices based on three primary factors: Whether there has been a more-transmissible variant of COVID-19 identified in the area, local rates of COVID-19 transmission or rate of positivity, and local ability to monitor and enforce compliance.
“Low” and “moderate” risk sports were given permission to play by Cuomo and the state DOH on Aug. 24, and did not require permission from local health authorities to return to competition. However, many individual leagues and districts opted out of offering certain sports in the fall, pushing them to the “Fall II” season along with the “high” risk fall sports.
For leagues that spread across many different counties, multi-county cooperation remains the biggest hurdle moving forward.
“That could be tough,” said Schalmont athletic director Matt Ronca, whose district plays in the Colonial Council. “Our league has schools in Schenectady County, Albany County and Schoharie County, and that could be a roadblock.”
Ronca added that he was still awaiting confirmation from both Section II and the New York Public High School Athletic Association.
County health departments in the Capital Region will need to coordinate their response, Schenectady County officials said.
“Schenectady County Public Health Services is reviewing the new guidance from New York State, and will work with other local health departments to develop a regional approach to high risk sports, as school sports often extend beyond county borders,” the county Public Health Services said in a statement Friday evening.
“SCPHS has been in constant contact with schools within the county throughout the pandemic, and will continue working with them to keep students, staff and their families healthy and safe,” it added.
In a text message Friday, Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort said, “We just recently received the guidance and are in the process of reviewing and discussing with local districts.”
County officials in Saratoga County were not available for comment.
The Foothills Council spreads across six counties — Schenectady, Fulton, Montgomery, Saratoga, Warren and Washington — and Amsterdam athletic director and league president Steve Nolan said the league was moving forward with plans for both the remainder of the winter season and the “Fall II” sports, with flexibility at the center of the league’s strategy.
“We’re ready to finalize our plans,” Nolan said. “Once we get whoever can go ahead, we’re going to give these kids a season as much as we can.”
“We’re forging ahead,” he added. “We’re telling our sport coordinators to get schedules ready and have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, but we’re going to be ready.”
Teams in sports of all risk levels are prohibited from playing outside their regions or contiguous counties and regions.
With the onus on local health departments to give the green light, there’s a sense of cautious optimism around the Capital Region high school sports community for coaches from “high” risk sports that have been waiting months for some sign of positive news.
“I’m still kind of in disbelief,” Niskayuna girls’ basketball coach Sarah Neely said. “I was thinking we’re getting late in the season and was wondering if it was going to happen.
“I’m trying to stay calm because it is not 100 percent right now, but it certainly gives a lot of people hope.”
For winter “high’”risk sports including basketball, wrestling, ice hockey and competitive cheer, whatever season might be allowed would likely be a very abbreviated one.
A handful of “low” and “moderate” risk sports — bowling, boys’ swimming and diving, gymnastics and both Alpine and Nordic skiing — have been competing this winter, with some sports moving to virtual formats.
Both NYSPHSAA and Section II have already canceled winter postseason championships.
“Hopefully, they extend us into March and give the kids something where we’re not playing four games or something ridiculous,” Duemler said. “It’s good to be back on the court and have the kids training and getting ready to compete. You want to play for something, but we’ll see what the next step looks like.”
Zayas said that individual sections will determine when each season will conclude.
“I can guarantee all sections are working to make sure they’re going to be able to provide a beneficial season for all student-athletes in those school districts that are able to go ahead and provide those opportunities,” he said, noting he had a conference call with all 11 section executive directors after Friday’s news broke.
Throughout Friday, high school athletes from Section II and across the state posted social media messages urging state officials for a chance to play “high” risk sports and pledging to hold themselves and their teams accountable for all COVID-19 safety protocols.
Then came Friday afternoon’s announcement, and with it came a sense of relief and excitement.
“I’m really excited for our seniors, they’ve been through a lot these past nine months,” Shenendehowa football coach Brian Clawson said. “During that whole time, we kept in touch through Google Meets, we started up the weight training again, the kids have been lifting on their own, they’ve been getting together throwing the football on their own, we started small group workouts.
“To be able to get this news is just absolutely amazing, we’re so fired up.”
The boys’ basketball team at Schalmont was the last Section II team to compete in a “high” risk sport last March 10 when the Sabres won a Class B regional semifinal against Ogdensburg Free Academy, just before sports shut down as New York was struck with its first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, the waiting’s been the hardest part — and with January coming to an end, the clock was certainly ticking for “high” risk winter sports if any semblance of a season was to be attempted.
“Every day went by and we were getting closer and closer to February,” Ronca said. “It’s good. It’s exciting. We’re better off than we were yesterday.”
Staff writers Steve Williams, Jim Schiltz and Stan Hudy contributed to this story.