Under normal circumstances, the story lines heading into the 2021 high school winter sports season would be sort of sparse.
There’s only one new coach in the Record-Journal coverage area. That’s Angelica Ariola with Cheshire girls basketball.
There’s only one “new” team. That’s Lyman Hall hockey, which is once again independent and no longer a co-op with Haddam-Killingworth and Coginchaug.
It was a move dictated by roster numbers, one that was in the pipeline before the pandemic upended everything else in the landscape.
And it is the pandemic, of course, that has sportswriters chasing down 100 leads and athletic directors tending 101 details on the eve of the season.
102: They grow by the minute.
“OK, take a deep breath,” Southington AD Steve Risser said upon getting on the phone with the R-J on Monday evening. “What a day. We’re trying to get everything ready. It’s been one thing after another. We just got off a meeting with the boys swimmers.”
With the green light given by the CIAC Board of Control last Thursday, Connecticut’s scholastic sports teams — with the exception of high-risk wrestling — have the go-ahead to start practice Tuesday in preparation for an abbreviated season that can begin on Feb. 8.
That’s three weeks for teams to get regrouped after two months of inactivity, for athletes to get accustomed to competing in masks and for coaches to get as familiar with COVID-19 protocols as their team’s press-break offense.
Actually, even more familiar.
“The protocols are coming and we are going to freaking hammer them,” as Southington boys basketball coach John Cessario said. “Let me be honest, there are a lot of ambiguities, but there’s a lot of specific stuff. The ambiguities scare me. The specifics we follow. We are truly all for that and I hope everyone adheres to it because it’s that important.”
While area schools by and large pulled off a successful fall season, they are approaching the winter season with care and caution. In the fall, everything save for girls volleyball and girls swimming was staged outdoors. The entire winter slate is indoors, and it comes with the second wave of the pandemic surging.
So even though the fall experience provides a template for winter, it only goes so far. COVID-19 numbers are up and the winter sports present new challenges, such as use — or, to be more accurate, non-use — of locker rooms.
Plus, a majority of area coaches and a good number of local athletes did not participate in fall sports. They have a learning curve to round.
“I tell my coaches to maintain flexibility; what I say today could change tomorrow,” remarked Maloney Athletic Director Bob McKee. “I told my coaches this is probably going to be your hardest year because there’s so much you have to do outside of coaching. There’s a lot of things you have to do just to start a practice.”
“We’re all learning as we go through this; we’re all making adjustments, echoed Chris Dailey, the Sheehan AD. “I think that we just have to be patient. We have to go slow. It’s human nature now that we got a green light to jump back into normalcy. We have to remember we’re dealing with a pandemic and we have to be cautious and as respectful of that as we can.”
Of all area towns, Wallingford is being the most cautious. While teams in Meriden, Southington and Cheshire will start practicing Tuesday, Lyman Hall and Sheehan are holding off until Wednesday.
Tuesday marks the return to in-person learning for Wallingford’s high schools, which went to distance learning in November. (The other area schools have been in session throughout, with the exception of Southington, which returned on January 4.)
Thus, in Wallingford, Tuesday will be limited to virtual meetings between coaches and athletes to go over winter protocols. Even when practices start on Wednesday, they’ll be limited to conditioning and drills that are sport-specific and non-contact and keep kids at least six feet apart.
As in the fall, Wallingford has also drawn up its own COVID-19 sports plan to go along with the recommendations made by the CIAC and the Connecticut Department of Public Health.
“We’re going to do everything we can to get the season in. That’s definitely the hope,” said Lyman Hall Athletic Director Steve Baker. “Chris (Dailey) and I worked with collaboration with our administrations and the superintendent to get a good plan in place for this week.”
The operative word is “week.” Wallingford’s winter plan, for now, does not extend past Friday. It will be a week-by-week approach to February 8, and then through the season that follows.
“We’re going to wait and see how everything goes,” said Baker. “Everything can change in a day.”
Now that a time frame has been established for the winter season, the various conferences will meet this week to solidify schedules and suggested spectator policies.
As in the fall, the number of winter spectators is expected to be strictly limited and the field of play for teams limited to divisional “pods” shaped by geography to limit travel and exposure.
In lieu of state tournaments, leagues will once again run the “postseason experience.”
Unlike the fall, though, they’ll be able to run conference-wide tournaments. The fall events were limited to the divisions in which teams played in the regular season.
“We had a lot of contingency plans over the past month with the unknowns of what the CIAC was going to permit and not permit,” Sheehan’s Dailey said of the Southern Connecticut Conference, home to Cheshire and both Wallingford schools. “Now that we at least have the direction, we can look at the drawing board and see what works best.”
The one area school that will see a slightly different landscape is Wilcox Tech. In the fall, Wilcox played in a geographic pod with several Capital Region Athletic League teams as well as a few Vo-Tech rivals. That’s out for the winter. Wilcox will stay within the Connecticut Technical Conference, primarily in a division that also includes Whitney Tech, Platt Tech and O’Brien Tech.
“We know what we’re going to have,” said Wilcox AD Steve Wodarski. “We just don’t have the dates.”
Wodarski is optimistic about the winter season, and that perspective comes from his other roles as a coach, a teacher and a basketball referee. Contact tracing worked in the fall, Wodarski said, and he saw basketball players adjust to playing in masks in fall leagues.
“It was a non-issue. I was amazed at how good some of these kids could still shoot 3-pointers with a mask on,” said Wodarski, who officiated in a league based in East Hampton.
League referees had to wear masks. How was that?
“Not bad,” Wodarski replied. “It’s an inconvenience, but guys are going to be able to get through it.”
“I’m seeing this through all these different lenses,” Wodarski added. “I honestly think, on the athletic front and the scholastic front, we’re doing the right things, and that’s why I’m confident we’ll have a winter season.”
As was the case in the fall, success will depend on what coaches and athletes do away from sports. The CIAC reported a 0.021 COVID-19 transmission rate for fall sports. Only seven of the COVID-19 cases among fall scholar-athletes, the CIAC reported, were contact traced by local health departments to athletic events.
“The big thing we try to emphasize to our kids is just be carefull, be smart,” said Southington’s Risser. “We’re fairly buttoned up on campus. We tell our kids, ‘Think about it when you’re outside school; the same dilligence that you show here, show it outside of the school.’”
To limit the impact of potential quarantining, most teams will practice in cohorts — by level (varsity, JV, freshman) and in different areas of the gym, in groups of roughly 12-15.
Indoor track coaches expect to do a lot of training outside so long as the weather cooperates.
While wrestling has been cancelled, teams can hold conditioning and non-contact drills in groups of four.
The CIAC is requiring any athlete who has tested positive for COVID-19 to have a doctor’s note in order to return.
The CIAC is also requiring parents and athletes to sign a COVID-19 waiver, something that was not required in the fall. Winter participants assume all risks regarding COVID-19, though they will be able to seek redress in cases of negligence.