High-risk high school winter sports get a Feb. 1 start date – Times Union

Shenendehowa junior Meghan Huerter, shown in the postseason last season, is among those looking forward to the possibility of playing basketball sometime in February. (Jim Franco/Special to the Times Union)
Schalmont’s Payton Graber, right, said “I have been waiting for this for so long. I was so glad when I finally saw that,” about being able to start practicing on Feb. 1, pending county approval. (Lori Van Buren/Times Union)
Hoosick Falls boys’ basketball coach Mike Lilac said he and his team are ready to get to work as soon as possible. (Lori Van Buren/Times Union)
The New York State Department of Health and Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an update on high-risk high school winter sports Friday, a decision that will allow athletes to begin practicing basketball, hockey and wrestling beginning Feb. 1 provided there is approval from county health officials.
“Effective February 1, 2021, participants in higher risk sports and recreation activities 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),” the guidelines read.
The coronavirus pandemic has hindered the ability of high school athletes to compete since last March. The winter state championship tournaments in such sports as bowling, basketball and hockey were not completed. There was no spring season in 2020 and no high-risk sports allowed during the fall.
The start of winter sports this season was pushed back to Jan. 2 and did not allow high-risk sports to practice.
Even if Friday’s news failed to provide all the answers, Section II athletes, coaches and officials still found the announcement to be uplifting.
“I was full of emotions. I really could not get a smile off my face,” said Shenendehowa senior basketball star Meghan Huerter, who is headed to play next at Providence. “My Dad texted me about it. My sister (Jillian) and I saw it. We looked at each other and were so excited.”
“I have been waiting for this for so long. I was so glad when I finally saw that,” Schalmont junior point guard Payton Graber said.
“I had a group text with my kids, a group text with my coaches and a group text with our league coaches,” Hoosick Falls boys’ basketball coach Mike Lilac Jr. said. “We’re ready. I was losing hope.”
“This is a chance to play. That is better than nothing,” La Salle boys’ basketball coach Greg Davis said. “This gives our kids the chance to play and our seniors a chance to finish their careers. That is all we can ask for.”
“We’re excited. We don’t know what the restrictions will be. We don’t know a lot,” Columbia wrestling coach Anthony Servidone said. “The biggest thing will be we only have a month and I have a lot of football players on the team. Depending on what we hear from the section, some of them may opt to wait for football (beginning on March 1) to avoid injuries.
“More than anything, I am happy for the student-athletes. This is something. To what capacity, we don’t know yet. There will be something.”
“The level of excitement today is just a great feeling to have,” Shenendehowa athletic director Chris Culnan said. “It is an incredible feeling to know that our kids, who are just looking for something to be normal about their schooling and day-to-day life, are getting this chance. That especially goes for our seniors and all seniors across the state. They are going to wake up (Saturday) with the hope of having their season.”
“It was something I was hoping for, but I did not realize it would be coming out (Friday),” New York State Public High School Athletic Association executive director Dr. Robert Zayas said. “I am certainly appreciative they were able to release the information when they did because it gives our schools a week to prepare to get things underway. This is something our athletic administrators and coaches have been waiting on. They would have done it with 24 hours’ notice, but it is nice that we have more than a week to prepare.”
The winter season was originally slated to finish Feb. 28, but with 10 practices required for wrestling and six needed for basketball and hockey, that leaves three weeks if there are no adjustments made to push things back.
“We have a lot of work to do in terms of our structure of our league and what our end dates are going to be based on what the section provides us,” Culnan said. “We are going to have to communicate with our superintendents to make sure we have our protocols in place, similar to what we did during the fall. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re all glad to be able to dig in and do it.”
“The season end date is going to be determined by each individual section,” Zayas said. “They have permission to start Feb. 1, but there are practice requirements that all sports need to meet prior to playing any games or scrimmages. The sections will determine when each individual sport will conclude.”
Zayas conducted a Zoom meeting with the 11 section directors after the announcement was made at 3 p.m. He said there will be discussion this weekend regarding waiving the seven-day rule that requires one day off per week.
Suffice it to say the area’s high school athletic community was discouraged with the way the winter season was unfolding prior to Friday.
“It has been super tough,” Huerter said. “I feel like the biggest thing for me mentally, because I try not to get myself too worked up over things and control what I can control, was school. I didn’t realize until I didn’t have a season how much my day-to-day life changed. I would go to school in the fall and have open gym afterwards or I would go to a football game. In the winter, I would always have practice or games so I had something to look forward to. Now, we’re in school two days and online three days.”
“I felt nothing happening and no steps were being taken,” Graber said. “When I saw the news, I was surprised but also very happy. We were able to do open gyms, but it was hard because you were working without an end goal. Now, we do. The girls were all freaking out in our group chat. We’re so happy.”
“I tried to remain as optimistic as I can. I had seen what was happening in other parts of the country,” Zayas said. “I don’t think I got to the point where I thought there would not be a season, I just thought with each passing week the season would be more condensed. I never got to the point where I thought it would not happen.”
Section II executive director Ed Dopp has stated previously the section would try to be as fluid as possible regarding scheduling. The athletes given the go-ahead Friday to practice and prepare for their sports will take whatever they can get.
“I will play as many games as coach (Joe) Murphy can fit in,” Huerter said. “I would not complain about being tired or sore. I just want to play with my teammates and, potentially, the last time with my sister.”
“We’re going to try to figure what can do to maximize games while also keeping it safe,” Lilac said.
Said Zayas, “We are going to have condensed seasons and obstacles to overcome, but more than anything else, I am excited for those student-athletes tonight that were given news that will give them an opportunity to represent their school, represent their community and to wear their jersey to participate in their school sports, with their friends and under the direct supervision of their school-board approved coach.”
“I can’t wait to play again,” Graber said.
“The kids deserve this,” Davis said.
James Allen has covered Section II athletics since 1989. He also works as a broadcaster for local radio and television outlets. He joined the Times Union in 2006. He covers high school sports. Contact him at [email protected] or 518-454-5062.

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