WALLINGFORD — They weren’t surprised by the decision. They understand it. They support it.
That said, area basketball coaches were no less disappointed for their players when the CIAC Board of Control decided Tuesday to delay the start of the winter scholastic sports season until at least January 19.
Given the resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic, some coaches thought the CIAC’s original start dates — November 21, then December 5 — were not realistic to begin with. Yet they also take comfort in the fact that season hasn’t been cancelled outright.
“My thought all along was for us to wait until mid-January,” Sheehan boys coach Joe Gaetano said Wednesday. “The timing wasn’t good to start before then. The world is struggling.
“They made the best move and they didn’t kill the patient. This decision was in the best interest of everyone. It was the right decision. We still have life. Hopefully, we can have a season without interruption.”
Gaetano’s Sheehan counterpart, girls basketball coach Mike Busillo, concurred.
“I always thought the timelines they gave us starting on November 21 or December 5 were aggressive,” Busillo said. “The (COVID-19) numbers are going in the wrong direction. I understand that everyone wants to err on the side of safety. The CIAC is making the decisions based on what the principals and superintendents want, which is what they are supposed to do. I’m not surprised.
“My players and I want to get on the court as much as anyone,” Busillo added. “We are hopeful.”
Gaetano and Busillo made their comments the day after the Wallingford Board of Education voted to close Lyman Hall and Sheehan High, plus the town’s two middle schools, and go to distance learning now through January 19.
The matching target date by the CIAC and Wallingford isn’t a coincidence. Connecticut schools are due to return from Christmas break on January 4. Waiting until January 19 to return Wallingford students to school and start up winter sports practices statewide covers the standard two-week quarantine window.
That, of course, is assuming that the pandemic at least stabilizes by then. Lyman Hall girls basketball coach Tom Lipka, for one, is not overly optimistic the situation will be better in the middle of January.
“It is disappointing that basketball is delayed until January 19th, although I suspected it would with the recent spikes in COVID,” Lipka said. “I feel for the seniors as this is their last year playing hoops.”
Nationally, Connecticut is one of 28 states, plus the District of Columbia, to modify its 2020-21 scholastic basketball season, according to the National Federation of High School Associations. The other 22 are playing under a “fairly normal timeframe.”
The NFHS basketball map, incidentally, is similar to the 2020 presidential electoral map. The states with no modifications are primarily in the South, Midwest, interior West and Great Plains. The states that made changes — mostly by delaying the season — are in the Northeast, Great Lakes Region, Southwest and on the West Coast.
Connecticut is also calling for basketball players, hockey players and gymnasts to wear masks while competing, just as girls who played volleyball, the lone indoor sport of the fall, were required to do this past season.
Basketball coaches accept the mask requirement for the sake of public health and games getting played, but note there are ancillary issues to consider. Unlike volleyball, which is played in relatively short bursts in a confined space, basketball is fluid and runs the length of the floor, with a lot more contact.
What will the effects of masks be on cardiovascular exertion? What about pre-existing health conditions?
“Playing basketball with a mask on, I think, would be difficult due to breathing issues, unless there are masks made for athletes that make it easier to breathe,” mused Lipka.
“We are going to monitor it closely,” Gaetano said. “If a kid has a touch of asthma, then you have to be careful, very careful. With masks, you may not play a kid as much for long stretches.”
To the latter point, coaches recognize they’ll need to develop deeper benches and rotate players more frequently. Coaches do take comfort in the fact that volleyball was able to make it work with masks.
“I wasn’t sure if any indoor sports would be allowed to play this year, but then volleyball was able to play and that was successful. I felt we were on the right track for basketball to happen,” said Wilcox Tech boys coach Randy Farkas. “I don’t know how this is going to affect the players, but if that is what is required and the future of the sport, we are going to have to adapt. If that allows us to play, the players will deal with it.”
As it now stands, basketball teams would start practicing on January 19. Games would start no earlier than January 29.
The CIAC had hoped to play a state tournament in the second half of February, but that timeline predated Tuesday’s decision.
The CIAC does have an “alternative” season set up for late February through the middle of April to accommodate tackle football, which was cancelled in the fall, as well as other sports that don’t complete at least 40 percent on their season. Thus, should there be further delays come January, winter sports could potentially spill into that alternative season.
For now, basketball coaches see the big picture, and the bigger opponent.
“I know there seems to be a renewed effort to control the spread of COVID,” Busillo said. “We need to do a lot of the things we were doing in April and May to get this under control. If we don’t get there, I don’t think things are going to change on January 19. I know there is good news as far as a vaccine, but we have to get our numbers down. That takes the effort of everybody, not just the Wallingford community, but everyone to get this under control.”
Lipka is wistful that a testing protocol wasn’t put in place.
“What is disappointing besides the seniors not playing, for now, is that the CIAC and everyone knew in May/June that there was a strong possibility that there would be a second wave/surge in positive cases come winter,” the LH coach remarked. “At times, I struggle with why we do not test athletes and get immediate results. Many colleges test their athletes through rapid testing where results are given that day. I just wish we had some kind of testing system in place for high school athletes to get immediate results that day so they can be cleared to practice or play on game day.
“Money is probably an issue,” Lipka continued. “Just wish we were a little more proactive in trying to play high school sports. I feel bad for the kids.”
This is the second time the pandemic is affecting winter sports. Last year, when the coronavirus exploded in mid-March, it brought a halt to the state tournaments.
Gaetano’s team was still alive. So was Busillo’s. The Lady Titans, in fact, were a good bet to return to the state finals.
“We are hopeful to get back on the court at some point,” Busillo said. “I don’t want my seniors' last game to be a (Class MM second-round) win over St. Joseph’s in February. That’s not the way we wanted it to end. We are hoping to get on the court in January and play in February and get some kind of tournament experience.”
Said Farkas, “As of right now, I am looking forward to an upcoming season. We will see how things pan out, but, hopefully, we will get an opportunity to play.”