BRISTOL - Winter high school sports are officially on in Connecticut, and students and coaches across the state are thankful to be done waiting.
With practices allowed to begin Jan. 19 and regular season contests starting Feb. 8, everyone has a tight window to finalize rosters and prepare for a season different than anything they could have imagined this time a year ago.
Those who participated in the 2020 fall season will be familiar with how this will feel and look, but fall teams had the benefits of conditioning periods and cohorted practices before the teams were allowed to convene fully to start their season. Winter teams have all of that packed into just under three weeks, which is actually more time than originally expected when the Department of Public Health said the season could start as early as Feb. 1.
“The normal preseason would probably consist of two days of tryouts, 10 days of practices and three scrimmages,” Bristol Central boys basketball head coach Tim Barrette said. “I would say we’d be lucky to get one scrimmage in this year, but the other thing is I’m not so sure what weekend availability is going to be like for practice time. So if we’re looking at only 10 practices total before the season starts.”
Everyone will be required to wear a mask at all times during games and practices, outside of sanctioned mask breaks, so getting the kids accustomed to playing and breathing with a mask on will be an important part of the preseason for Barrette. Stamina will be prioritized to ensure the mask is a minimal distraction.
“The kids have to get used to playing in the mask,” Barrette said. “Everything you’re going to do is going to be fast-paced, and you’re going to have to really use the next two weeks to push your kids in terms of conditioning, I think that’s going to be the biggest thing. The basketball may be sloppy, so we have to be sure as coaches that our kids are conditioned so everyone stays healthy and doesn’t get hurt.”
Bristol Eastern boys basketball coach Bunty Ray is not as concerned with how his players will be affected by wearing a mask, but is focused on how he will conduct practices this preseason. Everyone expects the actual length of practices will be shortened, meaning coaches have more to teach in less time than ever.
“We’re going to have to be super efficient in what we do,” Ray said. “We’re going to have to be able to get most of our plays in, try to get our feet going and our legs going as fast as we can and see where we are. At the same time, just being in the gym is going to be a shot of energy. I feel like the kids are going to be very positive, ready to go. I don’t think there's going to be a whole lot of negativity knowing we had a chance to lose the season and now we’re in the gym.”
Being limited in this way almost guarantees there will not be enough time for fine tuning and working on skills that are best simulated at game speed. Scrimmages are a strong litmus test to see what works for a team against actual competition and teams will most likely suffer.
“I know we would definitely have at least four preseason scrimmages, we would definitely have more scrimmage time, which I think is very important,” Ray said. “Simulating the teams we have to play in practice is going to be difficult because we’re not very deep so that’s going to be a big issue for us. Normally when you’re playing these teams in the preseason you can simulate what you’re going to get during the season. For us, we’re going to have to go against each other and I think that game speed is going to be a big issue for us. If it’s the same cohorts [as the fall season], those teams are exceptional, our schedule just upped in difficulty so we have to turn around and we have to be able to navigate that.”
More than ever, coaches will be relying on returning players to lead by example this season. With less time to actually teach a lot of the playbook, experienced players who know the system will be crucial to leading the team on the floor.
“We returned 95 percent of the minutes played last year, we have a lot of returning experience for gameplay, which is good and a lot of kids that played at the varsity level last year,” Barrette said. “As a coaching staff, one of the things that we’ll lack, especially at the beginning at least, we won’t be able to work with situations the way we normally would. Down two [points] with 30 seconds to go, that’s not going to happen in the first 12 days.”
While every team is experiencing all of this similarly, one of the biggest difference-makers for many teams will be how prepared the student-athletes will be on the first day of practice. Finding ways to work out and play basketball have been more difficult since the start of the pandemic, but the kids who found a way to get some work in will be at an advantage over those who did not.
“My guys take this serious,” Barrette said. “We have an opportunity to be very good, especially centered around Donovan [Clingan]. As good as he is, our goals, our aspirations are not going to happen unless the other players on the court perform; they know that. The guys around him have taken it very seriously this offseason. Most of them have been in contact with me, telling me what they’ve been doing to stay in shape and I’m pretty confident in my varsity group coming in ready to go on the 19th.”
Matt Hornick can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or email@example.com