CIAC: Winter coaches gear up for a season of adaptation

CIAC: Winter coaches gear up for a season of adaptation



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MERIDEN — Wind sprints won’t be what they used to be in basketball practice. A line shift in hockey is likely to be shorter.

Depth on the bench will be paramount. So will social distancing.

While area coaches on Tuesday welcomed the news that state health officials are OK with the winter high school season proceeding, they’re also aware of the myriad adaptations they’ll need to employ to make it work.

“It’s something we’re going to have to figure out from Day 1,” said Sheehan girls basketball coach Mike Busillo. “It will be different, it’s not going to be perfect, but they’re all things we should be wiling to do just for the opportunity to get out there again.”

Final approval of the 2021 winter season rests with the CIAC Board of Control, which meets Thursday morning. So long as the Board gives the green light, teams can start practicing next Tuesday, January 19, and playing games on February 1.

The exceptions are wrestling, competitive cheerleading and competitive dance. Those are the winter activities deemed high risk for the spread of COVID-19 and they have been postponed this season upon recommendation by the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

Indoor track, though considered only a moderate risk, is also on hold because the DPH is advising against the sort of large, multi-team events that are the staple of that sport (though that is stance the DPH wants to revisit in February).

Meanwhile, basketball, ice hockey, gymnastics and boys swimming  — all moderate risk save for the latter, which is low risk — are poised for a 12-event regular season that would be followed by a state postseason running March 8-21.

There is pleasant surprise among coaches. With the coronavirus pandemic in its second wave, some thought a winter season would never materialize.

Some remain cautious in their optimism. If COVID-19 numbers worsen — Tuesday’s test positivity rate in Connecticut spiked to 10.72 a day after it came in at 6.33 — the season could be shuttered at any time.

“I think the kids need (the season). I’m worried about the pandemic, though. I think we need to put it to bed and I dont know the best way to do. it. That’s above my pay grade,” said Sheehan boys basketball coach Joe Gaetano. “I’m worried that we’ll stop and start, stop and start.

“But whatever we do, we will do,” added Gaetano, who returns to coaching after the passing of his wife Cathy on December 31. “And I could use the diversion, that’s for sure.”

Coaches face the challenge of getting into game shape players who have been idle, in a team sense, since mid-November, when the CIAC delayed the high school winter season and Gov. Ned Lamont suspended youth and recreational sports, both until January 19.

Coaches will have just two weeks, which actually isn’t too out of the ordinary.

The masks, however, are. In order to play amid the pandemic, basketball and hockey players and gymnasts must wear masks, just like girls volleyball players did in the fall.

Basketball and hockey, though, require much more sustained movement over a broader surface. Coaches know they’ll have to make allowances.

“I can’t see myself pushing kids as much in practice as far as running and conditioning,” Lyman Hall girls basketball coach Tom Lipka said recently.

“Let’s put it this way,” said Maloney coach John Vieira, whose girls basketball team got in one masked cohort conditioning session before things shut down in November. “It’s usually Mackenzie McCormack and Ashley Lespier who are neck and neck in sprints and the two of them were struggling.

“We as coaches are going to have be out-of-the-box thinking on this,” Vieira continued. “We all have a lot of bravado. If the kids need a water break or a moment to catch their breath after two sprints, the bravado has to go by the wayside.”

One-minute mask breaks will be built into basketball and hockey games — one per quarter for basketball, three per period for hockey. 

Coaches know they’ll have to take steps beyond that. They foresee more frequent substitutions, which will require greater team depth on those socially distanced sidelines.

“I’ve thought about it and I think we’re going to have to do our best and develop as many kids as we can to play at a varsity level because kids are going to be winded,” said Busillo. “I’ve asked a lot of kids over the years to play 30-plus minutes a night. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do that this year.”

Hockey coaches anticipate going three, if not four, lines deep. The question will be if young, up-and-coming players can rise to the varsity level.

Lyman Hall Co-op hockey coach Dave Sagnella, for one, has already seen kids respond to the challenges of the pandemic. He coaches a youth team and his players there adjusted to playing with masks before the November shutdown.

“It definitely takes some getting used to. The first game, the players were extremely fatigued after the first period. As time went on, they became more used to it,” Sagnella remarked. “You can’t skate them hard for 60 minutes at practice. Also, quick shifts will be overly emphasized this season.”

“Playing with masks is not a big problem for the kids,” commented Sheehan hockey coach Dave Festa. “They are very resilient and flexible, and if that is what it takes to play a season, then we will happily adapt.”

There is a potential Catch-22 this season in developing younger players. If senior starters work closely with their understudies in practice, a team could get wiped out at a given position. If one player has to quarantine, so do the others.

“It’s unfortunate. We’re going to have to deal with kids, for no fault of their own, being contact-traced out of games,” said Busillo. “We’re all going to have to be willing to adjust to that and look at the big picture and just be grateful to be out on the court again.”

Basketball teams will at least be on their home floors. Some hockey teams have to relocate because their usual rinks are not available.

Such was the case for Cheshire, which plays at Wesleyan, and Sheehan, which skates at Choate. Wesleyan and Choate are not playing sports this winter. That’s necessitated Cheshire shifting to Louis Astorino Ice Arena in Hamden and Sheehan joining the Lyman Hall Co-op at Northford Ice Pavilion.

Northford, a private rink, has COVID-19 rules in place. Only one spectator per skater is allowed in, while players and coaches can’t enter until 15 minutes prior to ice time. They must exit 10 minutes after.

“As far as coaching, it alters our approach for connecting with the players on the bench,” Festa said. “The biggest area of concern will be the pre-game and post-game. We will need to find another way to deploy our game plans as the time prior to a game is now limited.”

Those are the details. There is, as Busillo said, the big picture. At Lyman Hall, Lipka will remind his girls basketball team of that.

“Be thankful that we have something, even if it’s a shortened season,” he said. “Be thankful every day we come to practice, every time we play a game. Be thankful that we have this.”


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