In a normal season, high school basketball players would show up to practice, grab a ball from the rack and start getting some shots up.
This year, beginning this week with the start of winter season practices, there are a few necessary hurdles to clear before touching a basketball.
On Thursday evening at Berlin High School, the boys basketball team waited outside the gymnasium, each student-athlete telling the coaches their temperature and going through a number of other checkpoints to monitor possible symptoms of covid-19. After completing that checklist, each player sets his water and other belongings down along the perimeter of the gym, eight feet apart from his neighbor.
Then, practice can finally begin.
“It’s been crazy,” Redcoats head coach Mike Veneziano said during Thursday’s practice, Berlin’s second of the season so far. “It’s great being back with the kids, but it’s a lot. Personally, it’s probably one of the toughest sports to prevent the covid spread besides wrestling. The kids are on top of each other. We try to make the drills smaller, but we have to get them ready to play basketball. We just have to be careful.”
The actual practice looks just as unique, with players and coaches all wearing masks and maintaining eight feet of distance during the multiple water and mask breaks as players continue to adjust to conditioning and practicing while wearing a face covering.
“With the masks it’s a little hard to breathe,” senior Justin Piskorski said. “But masks or no masks, I’m just excited to be back on the floor with the guys playing a team sport.”
That excitement took some time to translate during Wednesday’s practice, the team’s first since state tournaments were shut down last March. Wednesday saw Veneziano’s group feeling out the new practice atmosphere, another area of this unprecedented season that will take some time to feel out.
“They weren’t as fired up as I thought they’d be,” Veneziano said. “We told the guys when we’re doing a drill to cheer your teammates on and get some energy going, and then they did. But in the beginning they were unsure how to even act because they’re not supposed to give each other high-fives or put our hands up together.”
The same sentiment was felt a few short miles up I-84 at New Britain High School, where Kurt Reis’ group continued to ease into the new season with a short conditioning practice on Thursday afternoon.
“It’s been crazy, obviously compared to years past, with wearing masks and asking these guys to keep their masks on at all times, then sanitizing and keeping a limited number of kids in the gym at once,” Reis said. “So it’s been different. It’s weird. You’re always used to starting in December. This was my first December off since 2001. If I didn’t have kids, I don’t know what I would have done.”
One glaring difference for Reis was the actual turnout for tryouts. Reis normally sees roughly 100 students try out between the freshman, JV and varsity squads, but the collective number came well below that this year. In Berlin, Veneziano didn’t see as steep a drop, but did lose a couple players due to covid concerns and his total number of roughly 50 student-athletes dipped to the low 40s this week.
Some schools haven’t been able to begin tryouts and in-person practices, as Newington’s basketball teams will have to wait another week to get going after the school moved to fully remote learning for this week. Still, the teams plan to begin their seasons on time. Meanwhile, Innovation has chosen to hold off on the start practices until Jan. 29, though teams have begun virtual conditioning and hope to start on time. The delay could lead to the postponement of one game.
As in-person practices continue at schools like Berlin and New Britain, both Veneziano and Reis hope to see their groups become more accustomed to wearing masks during play, but neither have found them to be overly intrusive during practices as of yet.
Veneziano has instructed his players to promptly leave the court for water if they feel they need a mask break and a few took him up on that offer during the first couple practices. Reis has had a similar experience.
“I thought it would be worse, but they’ve been pretty good,” Reis said. “We give them breaks for water and we just tell them if you feel like it’s too much, just step out into the hallway and come back. But overall, it’s been good.”
Even for a Hurricanes team built around full-court pressing and pushing the ball in transition, a face covering during times of heavy physical exertion isn’t enough to diminish the excitement of being back on the floor together for the first time in nearly 11 months.
“It feels good to be back,” New Britain senior Justice Carter said. “It’s a little different because we have to keep our masks on, but it feels really good to be back. I feel like we’re getting back in shape and getting into a groove.
“It’s a little tougher, but we have to get used to it,” he added. “This is what it will be like during games, so this is part of the process.”
Thursday’s practice for the Hurricanes was limited to 45 minutes of conditioning and full-court drills, keeping the focus solely on getting back in shape for the upcoming season, which begins for New Britain on Feb. 9. The Redcoats start the season a day before the Hurricanes and have been working on 5-on-5 halfcourt drills.
The drills themselves bring a sense of normalcy, but much like the beginning of practices, the conclusion is another reminder that this season will be unlike any other, as Berlin’s group spreads out in a large circle around the gym and raises their hands in unison as opposed to a typical huddle. It’s another necessary sacrifice to ensure that area teams have a chance to complete a season that was left unfinished in 2020.
“We’re still cheering each other on and trying to get after it,” Piskorski said. “It’s been different for sure, but we’re trying to make it work.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or email@example.com