By Bob Liepa
Wait, wait, wait … and then wait some more.
That’s what life has been like for anxious high-risk winter sports athletes, eager to salvage something of their 2021 high school seasons.
Those athletes, in many cases, received the news they had long been waiting for last week when Suffolk County gave its approval for all high-risk sports to begin practice and competition this past Monday, under guidelines issued by the county’s health department. Three days earlier, New York State had given its authorization for high-risk sports (basketball, boys lacrosse, competitive cheerleading, football, ice hockey, volleyball and wrestling) to return to action, if permitted by local health authorities.
So, when that opening day, Monday, finally arrived, what happened?
That meant a snow day and no school. Yet another delay. Mother Nature wasn’t playing ball.
That’s so 2020.
Anyway, here they are, high-risk sports getting back in action. They had twice been pushed back and then put on indefinite pause. Now they join low- and moderate-risk sports, which began Jan. 4.
For the high-risk winter sports of boys and girls basketball, cheerleading, ice hockey and wrestling, it will be a compressed version of an already shortened season. They have four weeks to work with.
You have to take what you can get, though, when you’re in the middle of a pandemic.
Mattituck/Greenport/Southold wrestler Jackson Cantelmo called the go-ahead “really shocking, I guess, in a good way.” He said it means a lot to him to have a chance to wrestle his senior season. “I’m really looking forward to giving it one last shot,” he said.
Even aside from athletes and coaches wearing face masks and high-risk sports athletes and coaches undergoing weekly tests for COVID-19, this will be a strange year for Suffolk high school sports. The winter season is set to close Feb. 27 before the fall (March 1-April 25) and then spring (April 26-June 19) sports embark on their condensed seasons.
Despite the time crunch, boys and girls basketball will both crown eight league champions and have a 16-team playoff bracket to determine four conference champions.
“I think it’s huge to have an end game,” Mattituck boys basketball coach Paul Ellwood said. “Originally, they were really standoffish about playoffs, but the kids need to have something to work towards.”
Wrestling, will consist solely of dual meets, with a county dual-meet tournament Feb. 26 and 27. Shoreham-Wading River, which finished third in the state in Division II dual-meet competition last year, returns 11 of 13 starters, including nine all-county grapplers, and could be among the eight teams that qualify for the county dual-meet tourney.
“They wanted to play as many games as they could,” Tom Combs, executive director of Section XI, which oversees Suffolk interscholastic sports, told Times Review Media Group. “That was the direction from the coaches associations, the basketball chairs as well as wrestling, and get as many matches, as many competitions in as possible in an abbreviated time frame. That’s what we developed, and it’s tight. That’s the problem. You don’t have much time to make up a game or move a game if we have more snow.”
All winter sports state championships have been canceled. On Wednesday, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association announced the cancellations of spring sports state championships as well to “allow sections more time to schedule and conduct regular season contests.”
“It’s uncharted territory,” SWR wrestling coach Joe Condon said, adding: “It’s like nothing we ever had. No one’s been through a season like that.”
Another oddity: No spectators are allowed. Some school districts are expected to stream sporting events on their platforms.
“Due to safety concerns outlined by the Suffolk Department of Health and physicians on our safety committee, having no spectators at contests will give us the best chance for schools to complete their upcoming seasons,” Combs said in a statement. “The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and support staff are paramount in this endeavor of returning to play.”
Section XI approved a motion to not have modified (middle school) sports for either of the two middle school winter sports seasons.
Looking ahead to an unusual football season that will start in March, eight league and four conference titles will be up for grabs, but for the first time since 1992, there will be no Long Island Championships. Following a five-game regular season, the top two teams in each league will play conference semifinals April 17. Conference championship games will be contested April 24, the same day the semifinal losers will face off for third place.
Southold’s superintendent, Dr. Anthony Mauro, expressed his misgivings about the weekly testing of athletes on school grounds.
“I’ve expressed my opinion about the fact that I’m not overly fond of testing at school,” he said at a Jan. 27 school board meeting. “I’m less fond of testing with the tests that we use that are the least reliable and then creating an image of safety. Look, it’s safer testing every week, but the other six days we’re not testing, so it’s good for that day. But these are the guidelines we’re given. We want to give kids [the] opportunity to play sports, so we follow the guidelines that we’re given, and really that’s the long and short of it.”
Mauro emphasized the fluidity of all these sports plans, saying “the truth is, this is an ever-evolving decision, you know, as the quarantines go on and as positives pop up and as numbers go up and down.”
Further patience was required Tuesday when some schools closed or opted to go to remote instruction. That could cost teams valuable practice days that athletes are required before participating in a competition.
Referring to these pandemic-affected sports seasons, Greenport athletic director Chris Golden said, “You can attach any adjective that is reflective of a Stephen King novel and it would fit — severe, strange, whatever you want to call it.”
Ellwood pondered the strangeness of it all for his team. With no spring or summer league and an extremely brief preseason, it will be a sprint to the finish of a season that will set up the offseason.
“I told the kids, I said, ‘We’re going to keep things very simple. I’m not going to micromanage it,’ ” he said. “We hang our hat on our defense. You’re going to have to play a lot more guys because we’ll be playing ourselves into shape while we’re playing games … Overall, I’m happy that we’re going to get what we’re going to get.”
Meanwhile, the clock is running on what may be the oddest sports season Suffolk has ever seen.
Mattituck wrestling coach Cory Dolson said: “We don’t really have time to [do a] slow rollout … We kind of got to have to go guns blazing the first day.”
Bob Liepa is the sports editor for Times Review Media Group, where he has worked since 1992. Raised in East Meadow, the Long Island native has won both Writer and Sportswriter of the Year from the New York State Press Association.
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