MERIDEN — For boys swimming, the good news, fittingly, came in waves.
First came the green light on the high school winter sports season from the CIAC Board of Control.
Second, and just as critical, came a change in pool rules that had been in place since Gov. Ned Lamont curtailed youth and adult recreational sports back in November.
Specifically: the rule that decreed no more than one swimmer per lane.
Had that rule remained in place, area swim teams would have been hard-pressed to hold practices, let alone meets.
“We’re hoping that loosens up or it’s going to be complicated to put a competition together,” Southington Athletic Director Steve Risser fretted before the change came down.
Southington swim teams call the six-lane Southington YMCA home. “Even virtually, to even have just six kids there at a time would be problematic,” Risser said.
That would have been cruel irony. Of all the winter sports, swimming is considered to have the lowest risk of spreading COVID-19.
The state settled the lane issue by expanding the restriction from one swimmer to four. The rule change came as Lamont reopened youth and recreational sports, a move that coincided with the start of high school practices this past Tuesday, Jan. 19.
Thus, Southington coach Evan Tuttle can gather his 24-man team at the YMCA not having to figure out how to squeeze in multiple cohorts in a limited time frame.
“This will help us facilitate practices while also being able to maintain regulations that ensure the safety and well-being of all involved,” Tuttle said. “The hope is we can have all athletes safely present for an entire practice.”
Ditto for the Meriden Co-op at the Platt pool and Cheshire at the Cheshire Community Pool. Both have very manageable numbers — 13 for the Platt/Maloney combo, 24 in Cheshire.
In Wallingford, which has drawn up its own COVID-19 game plan on top of the guidelines issued by the CIAC and Connecticut Department of Public Health, practices are starting this week in 12-person cohorts in all sports.
Lyman Hall, which co-opts with Coginchaug in swimming, numbers 22.
“We are very happy to get the team going,” said LH coach Donna Neary. “There are some stipulations, but it works really well with the numbers that we have.”
As much as the pandemic has put scholastic sports on unchartered waters, area boys swim coaches have at least already taken a turn at the helm. All but one is head coach of their school’s girls swim team, and the one who isn’t — Sheehan’s Keith Cargan — is the girls assistant coach.
The girls competed in the fall, so every area swim coach is already well-versed in COVID-19 protocols and how to run a program amid a pandemic.
“I’m not as antsy as I was during the girls season,” said Meriden Co-op coach Ed Heath. “As long as you follow the protocols and do what the health people tell you to do, you’ll be fine.”
In Cheshire, Modzelewski’s experience with the girls season made him the ideal fill-in when boys coach Kevin Reeder had to step down recently due to a job change.
“Most of the boys have noticed that I have everything organized down to a T this year,” Modzelewski said. “For (Athletic Director) Steve Trifone, it made sense for me to be the interim coach because I already coached in the fall.”
The girls swim season was successfully staged. The sport had the lowest COVID-19 numbers among Connecticut scholastic teams, according to the CIAC. Only 2.34 percent of the state’s girls swim teams reported a positive case of the virus; 8.24 percent of teams had to quarantine.
Comparatively, every other fall sport was in double digits for team quarantining. In girls volleyball, the only other fall sport held indoors, 9.62 percent of teams reported a COVID-19 case and 18.59 percent had to quarantine.
“One of the safest places to be is in a chlorinated pool. COVID can’t spread; it’s very controlled,” said Heath, who had no cases of COVID-19 on his team in the fall nor any girl go into quarantine.
“The protocols that have been put in place by myself, Rich and Bob are outstanding,” Heath added, referring to Platt Athletic Director Rich Katz and Maloney Athletic Director Bob McKee. “We do our part to protect these kids when they come into my domain. That’s my main concern.”
Heath will enforce the same rules he did in the fall. Before and after practice, he sanitizes door handles, ladders, kickboards, lane buoys, the diving board — pretty much anything that can be touched in practice.
Swimmers enter and exit through one door that leads directly outside. They have to complete a daily health survey before coming in.
Seating is assigned and spaced out in the bleachers. Locker rooms are not used. Swimmers sanitize any exposed skin before hitting the water.
“A little overboard, but it gives us a good safe feeling,” said Heath. “I can’t guarantee, but I want to assure the parents that when their kids are in my pool, they’re going to be safe. I’m doing everything in my power to keep them safe.”
As in the fall, swim teams will compete within small divisions grouped by geography. Meriden was the only area team to hold most meets in person. Sheehan and Lyman Hall were all virtual. Cheshire had one live meet. Southington was mostly virtual.
The fall season was capped with virtual conference meets, and that will happen again this winter. Since the CIAC will not stage winter tournaments and state meets, the “postseason experience” has again been left to individual leagues.
“Much of our planning and prep for the upcoming season is similar to that of the fall,” said Southington’s Tuttle. “If, and only if, we determine that an in-person meet can be run safely will we participate in one. Otherwise, we will engage in virtual meets, which we ran effectively in the fall.
“We also understand that anything is subject to change throughout the season and will face those challenges as they arise.”
Swimming is the only winter sport in which athletes will not be required to wear masks while competing. Masks are required, though, for anyone not in the pool.
Mutli-team meets are not allowed. Teams can schedule up to 12 dual meets.
The CIAC is encouragaing schools to hold meets virtually and not allow spectators. Those decisions, though, are ultimately left to the schools.
“I hope we can have a season like the fall season,” said Neary. “I would love to see the kids get a chance to have an SCC ‘championship,’ even if it has to be virtual.”