For one week, they practiced and prepared for the games ahead.
Then, just like that, it was over.
Hopefully not canceled.
And, amid all that uncertainty, the area’s high school spring athletic programs scrambled last weekend to start to plot their path forward. Not only to figure out what’s next for them, but also to make sure they could find ways to keep their athletes — their kids — active, engaged and OK with practices and games on hold.
“Because there’s so many different things going on,” Johnstown girls’ varsity lacrosse head coach Denise Benton said earlier this week. “We definitely have some kids that are very scared and nervous. . . . For the most part, I think my kids are staying pretty positive. They’re thinking, ‘OK, we’re just down for a couple weeks, and then we’ll get back at it.’”
But the absence of high school sports will almost certainly extend longer than several weeks, and Benton acknowledges the optimism inherent in the idea that current restrictions will hold as the United States deals with the growing health crisis associated with the spread of the novel coronavirus. Section II already postponed all games until April 19, but it’s difficult within the current climate to estimate with confidence a realistic point at which teams will be able to return to the field to practice, let alone play games. Capital Region schools are closed, at a minimum, through the end of the month, and it was less than a week ago that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that no gatherings of 50 or more people take place for eight weeks.
It doesn’t take much for a high school sporting event to grow larger than 50 people. Beyond that, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association will announce Monday a decision on whether its remaining winter championships will stay postponed or shift to canceled. Also on Monday, NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas said Friday that the association expects to announce a date that will serve as a deadline for it to “make a determination” on if it is feasible to sponsor spring state championships in 2020.
In the grand scheme, playing high school games is a minor issue compared to the large ones that swirl and need to be handled as the Capital Region and beyond contend with COVID-19 and fallout from it.
But it’s no small thing that thousands of area teenagers had an activity that provides fun, structure and purpose swiftly eliminated from their lives at the end of last week. According to NYSPHSAA participation data, 18,917 students competed last spring in Section II athletics across all levels. While so much focus rests on wins and highlights, high school sports create a community for all its participants, not just its champions, and that feature is what proponents regularly cite as the top benefit of scholastic sports, even in the best of times.
“And all that normalcy has been taken away,” Mohonasen athletic director Dave Austin said.
The reason for that is needed, and Austin doesn’t dispute that one bit. Everything changed so quickly, and he spent multiple hours Thursday before a phone interview with The Daily Gazette helping to distribute meals as part of a district program. He knows it’s tough on his school’s athletes to stop training together, and he’s had to offer a reminder several times this week that athletes shouldn’t be gathering on the school’s fields to work out.
“It’s tough, because they’ve shut down all the theaters, all the restaurants, all the gyms. These kids are getting stir-crazy,” Austin said. “But [they] can’t come to the turf field and work out with a dozen kids.
“When it comes to [losing sports], kids are disappointed without a doubt, frustrated without a doubt,” Austin added. “But we want them to be smart.”
What Austin has seen on his fields is not unique to Mohonasen. Several area schools posted reminders on social media this week that athletes should not work out together, an indication that a number of schools encountered that gatherings of athletes were continuing to take place despite instructions from athletic directors, coaches and trainers to stay apart.
Carla Pasquarelli, who works for St. Mary’s Healthcare and serves as the head athletic trainer at Amsterdam High School, said she was aware of multiple instances in which a small group of athletes gathered. Through social media and other means, she’s worked to make sure they understand that cannot continue.
“We just want to try to keep them safe and remind them that they need to take these precautions,” Pasquarelli said. “Even though you think you’re young and healthy, it could affect you. So you want to keep educating them that this is a real threat to them.”
“But it’s tough for a teenage population [to understand that] because they don’t always see things as affecting them directly,” Shenendehowa athletic trainer Rick Knizek said.
Added onto that, too, was uncertainty related to what was “OK” to do as conditions shifted so quickly. Early this month, Knizek — chairperson for Section II’s health and safety committee — drafted a memo for Section II to send out to its member schools detailing recommendations to put into place as competition, at the time, was set to continue. Those recommendations focused on teammates not sharing water bottles or towels, eliminating post-game handshakes and making sure alcohol-based hand sanitizers were readily available for participants.
Move forward a couple weeks. Now, “separation is the goal,” and games and practices are completely off after a frantic stretch traveled with no road map on how to navigate it.
“The situation changed so rapidly,” Knizek said, “that it was hard to keep up on an hour-by-hour basis.”
And that’s for the adults — the professionals.
So Knizek understands why young athletes might struggle with the directives they received.
“It’s so hard,” Knizek said, “because we’re telling kids you can’t get together in groups, and then you go to the grocery store and there’s 500 people fighting over toilet paper.”
And, then, there’s the culture built within athletics to persist, to outwork the competition. Like many coaches probably witnessed, the first instinct of the athletes that Ballston Spa varsity softball head coach Amanda Fifield leads was to try to organize workouts of their own once official practices were canceled last weekend.
“That was definitely their first response,” said Fifield, whose team finished last year as the Class A state runner-up. “That was immediate.”
So, too, was the response from Fifield: “You can’t get together. No team bonding [events]. Nothing.”
“We’ve got to make sure we’re clear,” Austin said. “The athletes cannot be running captains’ practices. Cannot be running student-led group sessions. We have to keep getting the word out that we all are supposed to be diligent with social distancing and do our part.”
“Everybody has to be a part of this whole process,” Knizek said. “If only certain people follow the guidelines, this isn’t going to work.”
Fifield’s team, though, stayed busy this last week, like so many squads that had their preseasons shut down. Using technology, Fifield essentially turned softball into another class for her players that are studying remotely, utilizing a variety of means to keep her players socially connected to each other and to provide instruction on workouts they could do at home. Those workouts ranged from skill work they could do on their own to physical exercise, and Fifield recorded footage of herself doing all the workouts so she could get them to her athletes.
“So,” Fifield said, “I’m sore right now.”
As part of their work to stay prepared, Fifield’s athletes are uploading clips of themselves completing a portion of their workouts to Google Drive. Benton’s athletes are similarly sharing clips of themselves completing their sport-related activities, but that sharing for both programs is about more than accountability.
“That’s more to make sure they’re OK. I worry about the kids I don’t hear from,” Benton said. “We’re trying to stay as positive as we can. This is such an unpredictable time in all of our lives.
“I really want my kids, No. 1, to be mentally healthy and physically healthy — but also for them to really see that as crazy, as scary, as a time that this is, that if we can get through it, how much stronger, better and prepared we’re going to make them for life, in general.”
While not a high school coach, Steve Dagostino — a former area basketball star who now runs “Dags Basketball,” a Troy-based training operation — wanted to find a way to help local athletes continue to stay active, but more importantly to stay connected. He temporarily closed his basketball business on March 12 — a day after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive test for the coronavirus effectively shut down the NBA season — and shifted this week to using his social-media accounts to post free workouts for area basketball players to use.
“All of our [in-person] stuff is canceled. From a business standpoint, we have zero revenue coming in, which isn’t ideal,” said the 34-year-old Dagostino, who starred at Guilderland High School and The College of Saint Rose before playing professionally. “But I made the decision with my wife that we were going to give everything out for free. We want to put as much value into people’s lives as possible right now.”
Dagostino works with athletes at a variety of levels, from little kids learning the basics to making sure Kevin Huerter’s shot stays true for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. In all, Dagostino said his training company works with approximately 1,000 area basketball players in some fashion. While the workouts he offers on social media can be accessed anytime after they’re posted, the first distribution comes live via Instagram in the morning in a pointed attempt at offering engagement to those working out at home, who are encouraged to make comments and post videos of themselves completing the work.
“The biggest thing for us when we had to cancel everything was we wanted to stay connected with everybody,” Dagostino said.
So the teams, athletes and coaches will keep working.
Together, but apart.
Fifield said her players take encouragement from “the possibility that we can outwork any other team out there right now,” while Benton’s squad keeps charging forward believing it will get the chance to defend its Class D area crown.
“We’ll take a short season over no season,” Benton said. “That’s our hope.”
Right now, that belief is needed. While he’s worked to keep his school’s athletic fields clear this week, Austin has enjoyed seeing the social-media posts of his district’s athletes working out on their own, finding ways to keep going. The empty fields are a reminder how much has changed in the last week, but the anecdotes he hears from his coaches illustrating how their athletes — their kids — are staying ready and connected make him smile.
“They,” Austin said, “still have that optimism.”