Winter sports were the first impacted by the covid-19 pandemic, starting way back in early March when the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference canceled the remainder of winter state tournaments as the coronavirus began to sweep across the state, the nation and the world.
Almost exactly eight months later, winter sports are still feeling the effects of the pandemic, especially following Governor Ned Lamont’s latest regulations for youth sports (K-12) in Connecticut, which will go into effect on Monday.
Some of the more notable regulations include the cancellation of all high-risk sports for the rest of 2020, meaning independent football leagues will be shutting down, and wrestling will not happen for the rest of the calendar year. Medium-risk indoor sports such as basketball and ice hockey will require players to wear masks during competition, a precaution that has already been mandated for the girls volleyball season, which will conclude at this time next week.
But for a sport like basketball, which brings far more running and contact than volleyball, masks will be a much bigger hurdle.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” Bristol Eastern boys basketball head coach Bunty Ray said. “I would say players would have to just go through it first and figure out how to adapt. I’m assuming there will be mask breaks throughout the game, and certain rules that might change based on how they play with the masks. What happens if your mask gets ripped off? Are we stopping play? There are probably some things to work out.”
Those specific regulations can wait, as the CIAC’s Board of Control will be meeting on Nov. 17 to try and finalize plans for a winter season, which was officially delayed from its initial Dec. 7 target date on Thursday afternoon. But given Governor Lamont’s latest announcement, when the CIAC does come up with a winter sports plan, wrestling won’t be a part of it for at least the month of December.
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Southington wrestling head coach Derek Dion said. “I’m on the CIAC committee for wrestling, and we met as few times in the last month or so to put forth some different protocols we hoped would lower the risk to get some kind of season in. The subcommittee we assigned came up with some great options and protocols, but I can’t say I’m surprised. It’s the nature of the sport.”
Some of the protocols the subcommittee created included practicing in smaller cohorts, keeping groups socially distanced during practices and matches, and limiting the season to a schedule of seven total matches, with no more than two contests per week, and limiting competition to only dual matches against schools within a specific region, like fall sports have done this season. Ultimately, those precautions weren’t enough to deem a close-contact sport like wrestling safe enough to play in 2020.
“There were a lot of protocols we tried to put in, but there’s only so much you can do,” Dion said. “At the end of the day, there is a lot of contact in wrestling. My personal opinion, there is a lot of contact in basketball too, so to have that and not wrestling, I’m disappointed. But I don’t disagree that we have to be diligent in these times.”
Some fall basketball leagues, including in New Britain, had already made wearing masks during play an option for players, and some decided to take that precaution. It will now be a requirement, though coaches hardly believe that will keep kids from eagerly taking the court after having their seasons cut short earlier this year.
“If you’re asking me if I’d rather play with a mask or not play, that’s up to the kids,” Ray said. “And I’m sure they’d all want to play no matter what.”
Ray, also a member of the Lancers’ boys soccer coaching staff, is nearly completed with a regular season that also looked cloudy back in the summer, when the CIAC was working with the Department of Public Health to satisfy safety precautions and play a fall season. Basketball will represent greater challenges due to its indoors venues and close contact, but if wearing masks is all that stands in the way of playing some form of a season, it would be a small price to pay for safety and the ability to give kids a chance to compete.
“I just got through a soccer season, and everything that came through, everyone’s initial reaction is always going to be one of doubt,” Ray said. “Then once you start to realize that this is what you have to do, people are resilient. That’s why they play sports. It’s one of those things where people don’t like change, but once they get used to it, it’ll be like anything else and we’ll get through it.
“The worst thing is saying we can’t wear masks and can’t play. For me, I’m not going to look at it as a negative. They found something to put in place so we can play.”
The same can’t be said for wrestling, at least not yet. It remains to be seen if a hyper-abbreviated season can start once the calendar flips to 2021, or if it will be moved to the second semester alternate season that the CIAC created for sports like football, which was canceled this fall. Until more is revealed with CIAC meetings and new DPH guidelines, a wrestling season will remain an unknown.
“I feel awful for our seniors that could have done a lot in a state tournament this year,” Dion said. “I’m really disappointed for them if we don’t have a season. But the safety of the kids has to be a priority.”