What will high school sports in New York look like amid a potential second wave?
There was concern in February as the coronavirus pandemic began to dominate the headlines, disappointment in March when state championships were halted, angst in April over the lack of activity during the shutdown and tears in May when the spring athletic season was cancelled.
It's was a long, emotional haul for student-athletes.
Getting students back in the classroom proved to be impossible even as the metrics in COVID-19 hot spots like Westchester and Long Island began to improve.
"It’s extremely disappointing for all those seniors who were hoping to be able to wear a school uniform one more time, New York State Public High School Athletic Association executive director Robert Zayas said in May. "It’s unprecedented to have to end a season in this fashion."
At the end of the day, there was no other choice.
"There were so many unknown factors, and when they did initially shut down, I believe they felt there would be an opportunity to come back," Yorktown athletic director Rob Barrett said. "When they realized how serious it was, cancelling was a no-brainer. They saw the writing on the wall and reacted accordingly. The biggest thing was always the safety of everyone involved."
A task force was established by the state athletic association to provide guidelines for a restart, but a green light is required from Gov. Andrew Cuomo before the game plan is officially put in play. The start of the fall season was pushed back a month to Sept. 21 and 2020-21 fall state championships were canceled.
The possibility of playing three condensed seasons was also introduced, but there is concern the overlap would prevent student-athletes from playing multiple sports.
"My big thing is, I just want to play," Horseheads football coach Kevin Hillman said. "I don’t care when it is, to be honest. Obviously the safety of the kids and the community is the most important thing. I’m OK with pushing it back or even switching it and playing in the spring. The big thing for me is just to give the kids an opportunity to play."
Right now, coaches and administrators are not the only ones comparing notes with other states in the Northeast.
"Kids are doing their own research and finding out different things,” East High athletic director Eric Robinson said. "You just try to encourage kids and tell them our state is taking a different approach, trying to keep everyone safe. ... They see the spikes. Some of them are, you know, 'It’s not going to happen to me,' but at the same time, there is a grandmother who may be around a lot."
There were so many unknowns early on, leaving administrators to essentially cross their fingers in February when the winter playoffs got under way.
Jugs of hand sanitizer began to appear next to Gatorade coolers.
When the early spread downstate resulted in a full-blown health crisis, the level of concern increased exponentially. There was controversy when Monroe-Woodbury refused to play a Class AA girls basketball regional against Ursuline, which is situated just down the street from where an early case of COVID-19 made national headlines.
“A basketball game, no matter what level it is, will never come before our students,” Monroe-Woodbury athletic director Lori Hock said in March. “It’s not about them coming to our school, it’s about them having contact with our students.”
There was very little consensus about the impact of this virus, which made it very difficult to proceed.
In a matter of 24 hours, all remaining winter playoff tournaments were suspended. Hope officially ran out March 23 when the NYSPHSAA canceled state championships for boys and girls basketball, ice hockey and boys and girls bowling.
"We were hoping, but this situation is bigger than basketball," Putnam Valley girls basketball coach Kristi Dini said.
Meanwhile, spring teams were taking advantage of unseasonably warm temperatures when one by one, districts began to shutter and switch to online learning.
Next came stay-at-home mandates.
Time passed and on May 1, the state pulled the plug. Athletic directors and coaches improvised to acknowledge senior athletes following the abrupt end. Many even made house calls to pose for Senior Day photos or drop awards.
Athletes were clearly disappointed, but not without perspective.
There were unhappy coaches, too. Some did not get paid in the spring or received only partial stipends despite working in the offseason and keeping student-athletes engaged for two months during the shutdown.
The Rochester City School District only paid coaches for six days of work, noting schools closed at that point.
Nearby suburban districts honored contracts in full.
“Those athletic directors and superintendents agreed to pay 100 percent of salaries to spring coaches because they view their salary to be for year-round work, and our district took a different stand,” East High baseball coach Kyle Crandall said.
A number of individual districts are not finalizing contracts for the fall coaches until there's a decision about schools opening.
Over the summer, plans to allow high school athletes to start offseason conditioning in Phase 4 of reopening were abruptly paused by Cuomo. It sparked controversy statewide because club teams were allowed to practice under CDC guidelines.
Some were even allowed to compete in low-risk sports.
“Usually, July is extremely active,” Brighton football coach Steve Lian said. “It’s one of my favorite times of the year, but obviously it’s different now.
“For a lot of my kids, this is why they get up in the morning, getting together, working toward a goal with teammates, their friends. I haven’t seen the kids since March. ... We are trying to advocate for our kids. We all want to be able to play, but it’s so much bigger. As a teacher, I know what I need to do so I can help them. My legs are being taken from under me.”
There had to be some temptation for regions not as harshly impacted by COVID-19 to break away from the NYSPHSAA's wait-and-see approach. Frustration was clearly expressed on social media, but the individual sections did not fracture.
Private schools played by the same rules.
Zayas and the NYSPHSAA ignored the let-them-play lobbyists, and preached the importance of patience.
"Let's see what's going to happen over the course of the next two months," Zayas said in June when asked about plans for the fall. "Then, we will have a much better indication and will be able to make decisions based on the information that we have rather than the information we think we are going to have.”
The decisions to end winter championships and cancel spring sports were made only when it was obvious time was running out.
And when the inevitable news broke, the response was often inspiring.
"It would've been nice to have one more year to make new memories with our coaches and teammates," Lakeland senior and baseball standout Joe Vetrano said. "It's definitely not the best feeling when you lose that opportunity, but I think staying healthy and staying safe is the main priority right now and we understand that. If staying home from school and canceling the baseball season is what it takes, we get it."
Teams stayed active during the lockdown. Most had Zoom workouts or virtual meetings. Home workouts became all the rage. In many districts, the coaches became social workers checking on the physical and mental well-being of students.
What needs to be done for a second wave
Talk about a tough puzzle to put together.
Everyone from Zayas and the NYSPHSAA COVID-19 Task Force on down has invested countless hours imagining and preparing for the fall season. That includes administrators, coaches and some 200,000 student-athletes from across the state.
The problem is, the pieces change. Everyone involved, must put together new game plans to compete safely, but are uncertain what conditions lie ahead, including if there is a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The one thing I know is, don’t attempt to predict anything,” Zayas said. “It’s just not going to end up well.
“It’s very difficult to forecast in this situation.”
The first hurdle in front of high school football, soccer, tennis, cross country, volleyball, field hockey, gymnastics, cheerleading and girls swimming and diving seasons this fall is, if and when school facilities will reopen.
Individual school district officials must impress the governor, state health and education officials they have plans to provide a safe learning environment. A continuation of students staying home every day to learn could mean no sports in the fall.
The NYSPHSAA already has already announced this will not be a normal season.
All fall state championships and tournaments which follow sectional playoffs and typically extend into November, have already been canceled.
Most school districts are bracing for drastic budget cuts due to the economic shutdown. Statewide travel for regular-season competition would contradict NYSPHSAA guidance for teams to build schedules against local opponents.
There are no plans to implement general testing.
“Just from an economic standpoint testing (as a tool) is not an option,” Zayas said. “A college would spend a half-a-million in a football season, is what I’ve been told.
“That’s not something that is feasible for school districts. Some would say it’s not feasible at the collegiate level.”
Right now, the NYSPHSAA is committed to the Sept. 21 start, which if students are back in classrooms even part-time, leaves a window for administrators to judge whether the coronavirus is spreading locally because of the return.
"Our task force is able to gather data on how things went," Pittsford athletic director and NYSPHSAA COVID-19 task force member Scott Barker said.
Current infection rates outside New York are less than encouraging for school openings and safe play, which is why the contingency plan for abbreviated seasons after Jan. 1 is on the drawing board. Traditional fall sports like football and soccer would be played in the spring.
“I think it will be a common model you will see across the country,” Barker said.
Right now, there is no plan for a potential second wave.
There are high school athletes, specially among the next senior class, who have begun to shape their attitudes to any season is better than no season.
“When it does happen, I want to be ready and excited for it,” senior Webster Schroeder soccer player Emma Leonardo said. “(The delayed start is) a setback, but you still hope that it can happen.
“Whether it’s in the spring or not, or later in the fall, I’m still hopeful that it will happen.”
All anyone in high school sports around the state can do is hurry up and wait, then prepare to be flexible.
“We have to wait,” Zayas said. “It is difficult, it’s a challenge, but we can’t get frustrated on a daily basis.
“If you get frustrated today, what are you going to do tomorrow?”
Mike Dougherty covers boys soccer, boys lacrosse, girls basketball and golf for The Journal News/lohud.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @hoopsmbd, @lohudlacrosse, @lohudhoopsmbd and @lohudgolf.
James Johnson covers high school sports for the Democrat and Chronicle/democratandchronicle.com. He can be reached at jamesj@Gannett.com, or on Twitter @jjdandc and @dandc.