MERIDEN — It’s still a waiting game for the CIAC winter season heading into the second week of January.
It’s numbers game, too. COVID-19 cases are being counted along with days on the calendar as schools return to in-person learning.
Also part of the reckoning: roster numbers. Not all athletes and coaches are comfortable playing indoors during a pandemic. Signups at some schools have not been robust.
Many lines run through the picture. Clarity should be forthcoming this week. January 19 still stands as the start date for winter practices, a date that will be either confirmed or pushed further down the road when the CIAC Board of Control meets Thursday.
Last week, the CIAC approved “mitigation strategies” produced by its various sports committees to safely play this winter.
The CIAC also met with the Connecticut Department of Public Health to assess the state’s COVID-19 situation coming out of the holidays. As of Friday, which saw a test positivity percentage of 8.24, Connecticut stood at 206,000 cases and 6,324 deaths.
The CIAC will reconvene this week with DPH as well as with Gov. Ned Lamont and his staff to go over health data and safety recommendations. What emerges from those sessions will shape the CIAC’s expected announcement on Thursday.
As it now stands, practices would start January 19, an abbreviated 12-game regular season would open two weeks later, followed by state tournaments.
“We are still planning on playing winter sports and state championships,” CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini told the Record-Journal late last week. “But we want it to be in a safe environment.”
Area athletic directors sound the same tone. “Cautiously optimistic” may be the most tedious preseason cliche, but in this case, it’s spot-on.
“I think we’re going to have to take it day by day,” said Southington AD Steve Risser. “We’re in a period of caution. On the one hand, we have the optimism of the vaccines are coming, but on the other hand we know the infection rates are higher than they were, which we all anticipated they would be at this time. You have to balance that.”
The uncertainty has made for a potential drop in participation. Winter signups are lagging at Platt and Maloney.
”Some parents are hesitant about letting their kids play,” remarked Platt Athletic Director Rich Katz. “I think the kids are waiting to see when this is going to happen. In comparison to last year, numbers are no where near what they were. We saw that in the fall.”
Both Katz and his Maloney counterpart, Bob McKee, are confident roster sizes will increase if the CIAC gives the green light.
Yet, in the Platt girls basketball program, there is unease. Coach Tina Gonya said one mother, who is a nurse, is not going to let her daughter her play this year, while several seniors aren’t sure they will either.
Gonyea is torn herself.
“As a former student-athlete, I’m hoping for the kids’ sake there is a season for them. You’re a kid in high school, you just want to play,” Gonyea said. “But as a grownup, as an adult who works and takes care of my elderly parents, I worry.
“I’m afraid for all of us; I’m afraid thinking about the kids,” Gonyea continued. “I don’t want them to get it on my watch. That’s a big burden. The whole thing is scary. My father has lived through five brain surgeries. I am not going to let this be the way that he — I would never forgive myself. So I will be staying away from my parents if we do have a basketball season.”
The CIAC did stage a successful and relatively healthy fall season, though travel and spectators were limited and there was no state postseason.
Last week, the CIAC reported that only seven COVID-19 cases among Connecticut high school athletes during the fall season were deemed, through contact tracing conducted by local health departments, to have been transmitted at a sporting event.
There were additional cases among the state’s 28,842 fall athletes, but they were considered to be contracted away from sports.
The CIAC surveyed its 186 member schools; 133 responded. This was the breakdown for the percentage of teams in each sport that had a positive COVID case:
■Football: 14.69;■Soccer: 13.56 (boys), 10.43 (girls);■Girls volleyball: 9.62;■Field hockey: 6.33;■Cross country: 4.09 (boys), 2.94 (girls);■Girls swimming: 2.34.
Much of girls swimming was done virtually, with teams staying at their home pools and comparing times.
Girls volleyball was the one in-person indoor sport of the fall. Players were required to wear masks.
Basketball and hockey players will have to do the same if the winter season moves forward. That’s already been stipulated by the DPH.
“The big thing that everyone has to understand is if we’re going to be competing inside, unless something changes from the medical officials, we’re going to be wearing masks,” said Southington’s Risser. “That’s going to have to be done, and my sense is you’ll still see limited spectators.
“I think it’s going to be very similiar, if not the same, in what we had in soccer and volleyball,” Risser added. “I think that’s the plan at this point, unless a curveball comes along.”
Other states have put additional modifications into place. In Massachusetts, where winter practice started on December 24, the jump ball in basketball has been eliminated. The time between quarters has been increased to 2:30 and to 1:15 for timeouts to allow for sanitizing.
On foul shots, the lane is limited to four players and remains empty in dead-ball situations. Also, to reduce contact, there are no inbounds plays on the offensive baseline. Instead, play resumes from the top of the key.
In hockey, Massachusetts allows only one defensive and offensive player in a scrum along the boards. A third participant results in a stoppage of play. Officials can also stop play if a scrum lasts longer than five seconds.
Only one hockey player is allowed in the penalty box at a time and teams have to spread out along the bench or set aside a separate area to ensure social distancing.
Also of note from the Bay State: Wrestling has been moved to the spring. Wrestling, aside from competitive cheerleading, is the one winter sport deemed high risk for the spread of COVID-19 by the National Federation of High School Associations. The Connecticut DPH, its guidelines in line with the National Federation, is recommending wrestling not be staged this winter.