YOUTH & RECREATION: With state restrictions rolled back, Meriden YMCA steadily getting back to cruising altitude

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MERIDEN — His basketball team couldn’t practice.

At least not in the traditional sense. When basketball practice is limited to cohorts of four, you can’t exactly work on your motion offense or zone press.

So Koby Benigni did the next best thing. He got after it on his own.

And while his dad, John Benigni, CEO of the Meriden-New Britain-Berlin YMCA, busied himself with keeping programs running in some way, shape or form during the two months the state put restrictions on youth and recreational sports, Koby taught himself how to shoot left-handed layups.

That’s making the best of a bad situation, right? When a pandemic stops you going right, take what’s on the left.

While Koby made himself better rounded for tryouts with the Washington Middle School basketball team, John and his colleagues at the Y kept the organization poised to relaunch when Gov. Ned Lamont, who had put the restrictions in place effective November 23, pulled them back as expected last Tuesday, January 19.

A week later, athletes in the YMCA youth sports programs are still masked and being held to the safety protocols that remain in place, but they’re able to gather in larger practice groups. They’re also hoping to see competition in basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and swimming before the winter season is out.

The in-house youth basketball league expects to launch February 20 and the men’s basketball league is taking signups in hopes of a February 14 launch.

On top of that, the Y’s winter baseball training program, run in conjunction with Ricky Marrero’s Connecticut Riptide travel program, continues at CrossFit Meriden. Also ongoing is the new golf program run at the Y by .

“Now we’re talking about getting programs back up and running; we’re getting these kids active again,” Justin Ferreira, the Meriden-Berlin-New Britain YMCA Director of Youth Development, said Monday. “It’s been a brutal couple months for someone like myself.

“Just to see the kids active and involved and to have that trust from the parents that the Y is doing it the right way, the safe way, it means lot,” Ferreira added.

The Y is refiring the stove by degrees. Like high school athletes, kids and adults participating in YMCA programs have to wear masks.

They no longer limited to four-person cohorts or, in the pool, one swimmer to a lane. Swim teams are now allowed to have four swimmers in a lane.

While basketball is on target for a mid-February start for games, the other winter sports in which the YMCA fields competitive teams — volleyball, swimming and gymnastics — are in a less-certain situation. The Connecticut Department of Public Health is adivising against multi-team sporting events now through the end of February, and that’s typically how those YMCA teams compete.

In lieu of meets and tournaments, the Y will likely line up events against single opponents, wherever they might be found.

“Things are going to look a litlte different because some of our competition may choose not to play,” John Benigni noted. “We’re calling all of our resources to see what we can come up with as far as teams that want to play.

“We believe it will be safe,” Benigni continued. “We can’t guarantee it completely, but we’re ultimately going to want to play games and compete. We’re going to follow the guidelines to a T and let the medical experts who set them up be medical experts.”

Here’s how things currently size up by sport.

■Basketball: Practices are now being held two nights a week for the Super Jets travel program.

There are four teams out of Meriden, coached by Christian Caban and Terry O’Connor (5th grade); Jesse Showerda and Jose Cruz (6th), Paul Bernier and Dwayne Largent-Rios (7th), and Rob Kontoulis and Brian Jordan (8th).

The Super Jets will start playing games February 13. Spectators will be limited to one parent per player.

As for the Y’s in-house youth league, which features age divisions ranging from 4-6 to 13-15, signups are now being taken. Action opens February 20.

■Volleyball: Meriden hosts the New England Shock program run by Ron Sparks and his wife Robin. They’ve got multiple travel teams at the 12U, 14U and 16U levels. There’s also a boys training team.

Games are TBA as the Y sorts out which rival programs will be playing matches and which ones won’t.

■Gymnastics: Ditto for Tony Cortright’s program, at least for the competitive team.

Cortright also has a pre-competition team and offers introductory classes. Those teams have been practicing throughout.

■Swimming: Aquatics Director Cathy Lewis and the Seals have also been practicing throughout. They, too, will see who wants to participate in a dual meet. 

“We’re willing to travel; we’re willing to host,” said Benigni. “We certainly want to reward the kids who have stuck with this an opportunity to compete.”

Looking at the big picture, Benigni said, “There’s a risk in no matter what you do. We can only be as safe as possible and that’s what we’re trying to do.

“And I think every parent has their own decision to make. I, for one, think kids need activities in their day to day.”

“That’s what it’s all about,” echoed Ferreira. “Even if we have to wear masks, how can we serve this community? What can we do for these kids? What can we do for adults who want to be active?”

The adult men’s basketball league, for one, is slated to play weekly games February 14 through April 25 in both Meriden and New Britain. The season includes playoffs and a championship game.

This league is for players ages 18 and up. They must be out of high school. Entry fee is $700 per team.

For more information on any of the above YMCA programs, visit or contact Ferreira at 203-440-1901 or Kyle Cookson, the Y’s Sports Director, at 203-235-6386.

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