High school sports have not been played in Connecticut since March 9, the day before winter state tournaments were canceled as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, which led to a nationwide shutdown of sports at every level, from youth to the pros.
After easing back into sports through the summer months, attention has turned to fall, mainly with football, which has been at least cut from full contact in Connecticut due to recommendations from the state’s Department of Public Health. But along with high-risk fall sports like football potentially being shut down in 2020, certain winter sports could be in jeopardy as a result, as detailed by Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference executive director Glenn Lungarini in a press conference last month.
“If we were to say, looking at the metrics right now, under the best of circumstances, that we can't play indoor, moderate-risk sports now, or we can't play outdoor high-risk sports, then we're making the statement that in the winter we can't play indoor moderate-risk sports, and if we can't play outdoor high-risk sports, we certainly can't play indoor high-risk sports,” Lungarini said. “When we look towards the winter, basketball and hockey are high-risk on the categories.
“If we were to make that decision right now that we can't play those sports under the current metrics in Connecticut right now, we would be making that decision moving essentially through our winter season.”
Just one week after making that statement, full-contact football was canceled in Connecticut, while girls volleyball was saved under the ruling that players would have to wear masks during competition. So, with a moderate-risk outdoor sport being currently considered unsafe under the current state metrics, what does that mean for sports like basketball and hockey, which aren’t scheduled to being for another three months?
“I think if people follow the precautions and are careful, it could work,” New Britain girls basketball coach Marc Wesoly said. “I had a lot of girls play AAU this past summer and they didn't get sick, and nobody in their family got sick. So I know it's possible, but I understand where the CIAC is coming from. They have to listen to the experts, but it stinks for the seniors, and the juniors who have hopes of playing in college.”
Wesoly was admittedly surprised when he heard Lungarini bring up winter sports at last month’s press conference, as was Bristol Eastern boys basketball coach Bunty Ray, who went through a season’s cancellation back in the spring with the Bristol Central baseball team.
“If they're going to use the word 'fluid' all the time, I don't think you can make any decision yet,” Ray said. “I think waiting until the last minute is tough, and they're in a no-win situation because everyone wants answers, but you have to be patient. If you push for answers, they will err on the side of caution. I think they waited [for fall sports] and got pushback from that, and then they made a decision and also got pushback.
“Personally, I think we should wait until the last minute to see what we can do and go from there.”
Will the CIAC take the route it did in the spring, when it was one of the last states in the nation to cancel the season, or will it act more aggressively like in winter, when it was one of the first states to shut everything down? Lungarini’s comments suggest that a decision on high-risk winter sports are already being formulated based on the current outlook for certain fall sports, but local coaches are hoping that outlook changes, as it has for fall sports numerous times over the past six weeks.
“Seeing that they're canceling football, could I see them cancel our season? Absolutely,” Wesoly said. “I'm worried, and I know it's a high-risk sport, but if they don't allow fans, we could have players that aren't playing spread out in the bleachers, and you're looking at only 10 or 12 people on the floor...I think it's feasible for us to do it. Unfortunately, as coaches we don't have a call in that. It's unfortunate. If you look at the summer, AAU basketball was played all summer and the numbers show that people didn't get sick.”
Girls volleyball, which was originally suggested to be moved to spring by DPH, is now greenlit thanks to adjustments like eliminating the switching of sides during play and the mandate of masks during competition, by all players and coaches. Basketball could present tougher challenges, with much more running making it potentially more difficult to implement masks, and while DPH initially recommended girls volleyball be moved outdoors, that wouldn’t be an option, especially in Connecticut, during a winter season like basketball.
So, if there is to be some sort of basketball season under the current outlook that Lungarini laid out, there will likely have to be other, more major changes.
“Not without compromising the integrity of the game,” Ray said of potential changes that could be made. “If they had them wearing masks, even then that would be a tall order., You see the NBA putting players in bubbles, and we just don't have the luxury to do that. My suggestion would be that if we're in score, instead of eliminating altogether, maybe keep things in town, and limit our kids to a few days a week, maybe figure out something intramural or across town to keep kids playing basketball. Maybe we can work something out instead of just eliminating it altogether, that way the kids have something.”
Wesoly would like to see a scheduling tweak to try to save a more familiar form of a season, especially now that fall sports are scheduled to end nearly a month earlier than normal, in an effort to finish the season before an expected uptick in virus cases occurs as a result of colder weather pushing people back indoors.
“They cut the season short for fall, so why can't we start the season earlier?” Wesoly said. “If we played just 10 games, let's play 10 games and have a conference tournament and then the state tournament. Or just have the state tournament and reclassify it where it's regionally based. Why can't we start in the middle of November and get 10 games in, so we're only playing five or six weeks? At least it's something.”
Wesoly and Ray both watched the previous basketball season be cut short and lead to protests outside of the CIAC offices in Cheshire. Nearly six months later, the upcoming season has now been put in jeopardy, and for the players’ sake, they hope the current outlook changes, and more time is given into making a decision.
“I think the crushing part of the whole thing is that once the final decision is made, you see what's happening now, people are really upset, and the kids just want to play,” Ray said. “I don't envy the decision makers at all. We have to understand them. But at the same time, I think we're all just champing at the bit to get out there and play.”