SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $3 for 3 months
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $3 for 3 months

High schools: NYSPHSAA says 'open mind' is key to winter sports

By Bob Chavez
rchavez@gannett.com

The 2020 fall sports season for high schools is officially over, but the lessons from it might be just beginning.

Of course, it was a season like none before thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. The season started late and did not include football, volleyball or competitive cheer, deemed high-risk sports by the state Department of Health. The number of spectators was limited to two per athlete and face coverings were the new normal for players, coaches and officials. 

And while the season was finished and champions were crowned in Section V, the focus now is on a winter sports season and whether or not it will even be possible. So the information from the fall season is being processed and applied.

Members of the Canandaigua Academy girls soccer team are masked and distanced before a game this fall.

“For the districts that found it feasible to host events, they were able to present meaningful participation opportunities even in the face of all the challenges and obstacles we faced,” said Dr. Robert Zayas, Executive Director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association in a Thursday interview. 

It’s one thing to delay the start of the season, said Zayas. But factoring in regulations on face coverings, social distancing and spectators made the task of having a season even more challenging.

“It was difficult,” he said. “It was so foreign to anything we’ve ever seen and we were asking ourselves how are we going to possibly do this?”

Marcus Whitman girls soccer coach Greg O'Connor.

The waters were uncharted, but once the new normal got a few reps, it became routine. And since the mission of the NYSPHSAA is to find ways for high school students to participate in sports, the fall season can be considered a success, said Zayas.

Of course, it didn’t work out for all. The Section V soccer tournaments for boys and girls had several forfeits, including the Palmyra-Macedon girls. The unbeaten Red Raiders were on track for a Class B1 championship, but contract tracing sent 18 members of the team into quarantine and Pal-Mac had to bow out of the tournament. The tournaments also were moved up a few days to ensure they could be completed in the face of rising numbers for positive tests at the beginning of November.

But cross-country, field hockey, girls swimming and diving and girls tennis along with golf managed to fit in entire seasons.

Cross country runners for Midlakes run in a race at Ontario County Park this season.

Zayas said NYSPHSAA did not track specific numbers related to COVID-19 to try to learn if playing sports had any effect on the spread of the virus. That task along with all the contract tracing, he said, was handled by the DOH.

As for the current path of the pandemic, winter sports remain on track. Sports deemed low- and medium-risk started practices on Nov. 30, but high-risk sports like basketball, ice hockey and wrestling remain postponed until at least Jan. 4.

“An open mind,” said Zayas in terms of advice to preparing for a winter sports season. “There are so many things going on so things are going to change, be revised and modified. We just need to have an open mind and make sure our priorities are clearly defined, which is to provide opportunities for students.”

It’s too early to know if the pending arrival of a vaccine in New York can change the outlook for the coming seasons, but Zayas said he did pick up on a change of perspective state-wide. And when future obstacles that are not pandemics alter plans and schedules, the frustration may be tempered.

For example, a state basketball tournament weekend might be threatened by a coming snowstorm. So the games are postponed for a week and all the planning that went into the weekend needs to be adjusted.

The Honeoye girls soccer team is masked as coach Grace Wood talks after a win this season.

“At least it’s not COVID,” Zayas said of what the response might be. “It’s going to change our perspective on things and will have a positive impact.”

Positivity might be difficult to find currently with the infection rate in New York at around 4.6%. Zayas and NYSPHSAA officials are of course keeping a watch on the numbers and basing decisions on the data and recommendations presented by the DOH. 

Those decisions have not been popular with many in New York, and Zayas is aware of the frustration and anger. But he points out that the priority of NYSPHSAA is to provide meaningful, and safe, athletic opportunities for athletes. He’s supportive of the work state officials are doing and said the work of local districts and superintendents deserves more credit.

“I don’t take it personally,” he said of the criticism. “We have our goals and priorities and we’re not going to divert from that based on negative comments.”