As it stands now, the winter sports season is scheduled to begin with team practices on Jan. 19, though upcoming meetings between the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference and the Department of Public Health could change that outlook.
With the possibility of area high school basketball teams playing games for the first time since March 9 of last year, local coaches carry differing levels of optimism as the circled date of Jan. 19 approaches.
“I’m staying pretty optimistic,” Newington girls basketball head coach Marc Tancredi said. “We have two weeks until our proposed start date and I’m just keeping a positive outlook. I want our players to be out on the floor. I’ve been connecting with them for the past month or so and they’re ready to go no matter when that time is.”
To prepare for the shortened season, expected to be roughly 12 games at this point, Tancredi has been keeping in touch with his team virtually, as Newington will try and put together another strong season that ended in the state tournament last season, when the season was canceled while Newington was in the middle of a run toward a championship.
“There are some obvious barriers,” Tancredi said. “We can’t physically see one other, but we’re being as adaptable as we can. At the beginning of December, we started team meetings for returning varsity players. We meet every Sunday for an hour going over team culture and breaking down game film, doing some goal setting, and it’s worked out really well. We’ve had 100 percent participation. It just shows their commitment.”
Other teams have also continued to communicate virtually through the shutdown, though numerous challenges arise, particularly when it comes to finding places to work out in groups. Coaches are currently not able to meet with their teams in person since this is technically the offseason for winter sports, but players are able to meet and work out together, if they’re able to find somewhere to do so.
“We played in two fall leagues so I got to see them play over the fall, but their ability to prepare now is very minimal,” Berlin boys basketball coach Mike Veneziano said. “There's almost no open gyms, so their ability to get in a gym, if they can at all, is very limited. They have to follow state guidelines, which is constantly changing. But the last I heard was three or four kids per halfcourt. It's difficult for the kids. I just hope they get something in, whether it's in February or March or spring. They definitely deserve it.”
Veneziano believes the season could get pushed back to February due to the current covid outlook in Connecticut, which would give the CIAC an even smaller window to put a season together. A similar trend unfolded in the spring, when the CIAC continued to delay the season in hopes that it would eventually be able to put something together, but that chance never came.
Bristol Eastern boys basketball head coach Bunty Ray went through that process as the baseball coach at Bristol Central, but is trying to remain hopeful that this season will bring about a different outcome.
“Just cautious optimism,” Ray said. “If you look at the states surrounding us, they’re starting to participate and play. But there are so many pieces to the puzzle. The CIAC will make an announcement, the state has to make an announcement, the Department of Public Health has to make an announcement and then your school systems have to make an announcement. All four entities have to merge in order for anything to happen. If we go back to school safely there’s a chance we can play. But anything can happen.”
Ray has kept in touch with his upperclassmen through the offseason, but has left any workouts and conditioning activities to his players, understanding that circumstances may be different for each student-athlete.
“My veterans know what to do,” Ray said. “If they can find space to work out or get shots up, they will. But a lot of the kids are in different spots. Some had to work to help their families and some have families that don’t want them out for safety reasons… It’s just a matter of where are they mentally when we come back? Once they say we have the green light, there will be a lot of enthusiasm. Until then, I think it’s more of the same.”
Those who are trying to find places to work on their game are running into more challenges, given the winter weather that has eliminated most chances to shoot outside, and with many courts being closed off to group activity, a normally accessible sport like basketball has become a lot like ice hockey in the sense that venues for practice are not as available as they normally are.
“We can't meet for conditioning, so I've reached out to a few players individually to give tips to, but there's no group conditioning,” Veneziano said. “You tell the kids to stay in shape for the season, but other reps like shooting are going to be down, so that's going to take some time. So you just make sure you're in the best physical shape so that it's not hurting you in your first weeks of practice. That's something they've had to do on their own. Hopefully they're doing that and when it's time to get back in the gym, they're ready to go.”
If the season begins on Jan. 19, there will likely only be two weeks before competition starts, giving players little time to find their shooting strokes once practices begin.
“There’s no doubt there’s going to be rust,” Tancredi said. “You see it right now in college games or even the pros. At times it’s not pretty. I expect that for high schoolers, but what I’m really worried about is the conditioning. Playing a full game and having regular practices is a lot different than conditioning two times a week, especially if they have to wear masks. I think that’s going to be the difference maker once we start the season.”
Most teams had players in fall leagues, but once those ended, chances to stay in game shape dwindled, and with the season quickly approaching, that challenge will be prevalent for every school across the state. But the arrival of the season, if it indeed happens, will likely be universally welcomed, regardless if teams return with a coat of rust.
“I know a lot of them have been working hard,” Veneziano said. “I can't wait to be with them again. It's been a rough year for everybody.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 o firstname.lastname@example.org