Gymnasium bleachers are empty, but the court at least is full. Fewer runners stand at the start, but they’ll run. The meets are virtual, but swimmers’ times are real.
Two and a half weeks into the COVID-19 fall of ‘20 high school sports season, play goes on with one eye on the metrics and another on the thermometers.
“The hard part is the unknowns,” said Danbury athletic director Chip Salvestrini, who has been a high school or college athletic director for over 40 years. “An athletic director, like coaches, for the most part we’re regimented. We have a routine. Routines are hell-in-a-handbasket now.
“It’s a challenge for us. Every day, it’s a victory to get through the events of that day.”
The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the state’s governing body, went ahead with every fall sport except 11-on-11 football, which never won the recommendation of the state Department of Public Health. Even many of those football teams are playing modified, non-tackle 7-on-7 games this fall.
That isn’t the only modification. Girls swimming is mostly happening through virtual meets, with each team swimming at its own pool, then comparing times.
Cross country is running in smaller packs, and when races are limited to 50 runners, said Xavier coach Chris Stonier, it’s sometimes hard to balance the desire to win with having his whole team participate.
And that’s even more interesting this year: Stonier said he typically gets 30-35 athletes, but this year, there are 42. Unlike other years, he hasn’t picked up athletes from other teams after cuts; he thinks some may have picked up running during the pandemic.
“People want to go outside and do something safe, and they found running as that avenue,” he said.
Masks and distance are a given, at least for those not actively playing. The exception is indoor girls volleyball, where masks on players on the court are an adaptation that made it safer to play the sport during the pandemic.
Seymour girls volleyball coach Cathy Federowicz said her players have done well adjusting to that tweak, but it’s difficult not having parents and other fans in the stands.
“The whole season has been weird, to be honest,” Federowicz said. “There have been frustrations at times. We’re in such a small division, basically playing the same teams over and over. You feel kind of out of touch with the rest of the league, and at the same time, the rest of the league is out of touch with you, too.
“I understand it. It’s what we have to do to have a season.”
It hasn’t been flawless. Nearly 20 schools statewide have had games or practices impacted by coronavirus, either directly related to a team member testing positive, or a school shutting down all activities due to a postive case detected in the school system.
As conditioning resumed in late August, a spike in cases in Danbury led the city to shut the school’s athletics programs down for two weeks. They’ve come back successfully from that layoff.
“The best part is the kids are playing and practicing every day. That’s the best I can say,” Salvestrini said. “The hardest thing is making sure the kids do what they’re supposed to do, social distancing.”
The Hatters have, Salvestrini said, good coaches making sure of it and taking care of the protocols, ensuring that athletes are symptom-free.
“It highlights the need to be responsible. Everything takes a little longer now,” Stonier said. “It used to be, attendance, you’d scan the team and recognize who’s not there. Attendance carries a larger significance now.”
Pro teams can put their playoffs in “bubbles,” isolating teams and staff from the viral rest of the world, or can test constantly to more quickly isolate those infected from the rest of the team. High schools have no such luxury.
A few local programs have lost time or had to reschedule games because of positive COVID-19 tests at the school, whether on the team or not. Several schools in COVID hotspots in the eastern end of the state shut down athletics for two weeks. Among the latest was Windham on Friday.
The CIAC allowed teams to play twice a week in their initial schedules, leaving room for makeup games, CIAC associate executive director Gregg Simon noted. That same space is built into the early framework for winter sports.
“We’ve had to overcome some difficulties, but for the most part our member schools have been great at following the COVID guidelines,” Simon said. “They’ve been working with local departments of health to make sure they’re doing the right things for the safety of our student athletes.”
When schedules have needed rearranging, SCC commissioner Al Carbone said, everyone has been accommodating.
“We’ve had a couple of schools quarantine, but what we’re finding, every school has gone in, especially this fall season, knowing things can change on a dime,” Carbone said. “People have been really appreciative of the chance to play. It has gone really well.”
Even if it sometimes looks a little funny: Salvestrini said that, since players can’t cram onto a bench in these times, the Hatters have single chairs spread out on the sideline.
“If you look from high up at the stadium, it looks like a jigsaw puzzle,” Salvestrini said. Then again, you might not be able to grab that vantage point: The stadium seats 3,000 people, but they’ve limited admission to parents, so attendance sits under 50.
Senior Nights came early, because that traditional last home game isn’t promised anyone this season.
“We had parents and kids social-distancing. Get a picture: social distanced,” Salvestrini said.
Federowicz said it’s weird not being able to go watch other games, too.
“We always had an eye on different teams throughout the state,” she said. “You’d kind of want to measure yourself. We don’t have that measuring stick.”
It’s not like there’s a typical state tournament for which to scout this fall, anyway. Teams will stay within their regions for play after the regular season, running through Nov. 20.
“We’re the two-time defending Class L champion. Everyone’s losing out on states,” Stonier said. “This senior group, their goal was to win a championship their senior year. It’s definitely frustrating, but they’ve handled it with class.”
There are plans to hold CIAC championships for winter sports, though there are as yet no guarantees which or any of those sports will get a season, full or not. That season will be a little earlier than usual, which adds a wrinkle to fall for administrators who have to squeeze in their winter-season scheduling. And, as Salvestrini noted, some games that were set long ago in a sport like hockey, where ice time has to be reserved early, need to be remade quickly.
But for now, this fall, soccer teams are out there, girls are diving and field hockey teams are converting off penalty corners.
“Once the whistle blows, the kids are playing. Officials are making calls,” Salvestrini said. It’s a little bit of normalcy in a strange time.”
Other bits of normalcy sneak through, too, like parents complaining about playing time.
“You’d think in the middle of a pandemic you’d get backup from parents,” Salvestrini said, that “they’d be happy kids are playing. The funny thing is, it doesn’t last long.”
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