NEWINGTON - Monday marked the official start of the winter high school sports season in Connecticut and many boys and girls basketball teams scheduled games for the first day to end the waiting as soon as possible.
But coming off of a shortened preseason, players are still getting adjusted to playing in a mask and playing with their teammates as coaches were forced to teach more in less time.
“It was definitely different, especially practicing,” Newington senior Lexie Armour said. “Our school had a covid case so we were behind a week. Coming back to it, we were definitely out of shape so getting in shape was pretty difficult.”
Newington hosted Berlin on Monday night - a 52-37 win for Newington - in the first live basketball either team played in 10 months and many parts of the game were different. There were no fans in the stands, the seats on the bench were separated, the gym was quieter and the teams were still getting adjusted to game speed. But as the pandemic continues on, everyone remains grateful for the chance to have basketball
“I was happy for the kids to finally get out here,” Berlin head coach Sheila King said. “They’ve been waiting a long time. It’s a lot to get used to and we just hope we can see each other again tomorrow because that’s what it’s about.”
Taking the court for the first time in almost a year after a rather abrupt ending to last season was an intense experience. Following months of uncertainty, not just about the basketball season, everyone felt a sense of relief as they all returned to something they enjoyed doing.
“I think there was a lot of excitement and a lot of nervousness, too,” Newington head coach Marc Tancredi said. “I think that was more because it was the first game of the season and we haven’t played in almost a year.”
Teams figure to only get more comfortable as their seasons go on and can continue to build the chemistry that normally comes before the season. The most important adjustment, however, may be to wearing a mask on the court even with masks breaks in every quarter.
“I feel like we’re used to it now, but to start off it was really hard, you get tired really fast,” Armour said. “I think [Monday] went really well especially for our first time finally being back together. I think we communicated well with the masks, which we thought was going to be the hardest thing.”
King said her team is still getting accustomed to the masks and said it interferes with how she is able to run a practice from how she’s used to.
“The soccer kids wore them outside and they thought they were going to have the same experience inside and it’s stifling inside,” King said. “A two-hour practice is a lot, but we’re trying to figure everything out. You can’t get everything done that you used to get done so you pick and choose priorities and hope for the best.”
The season will be hard for both teams as neither will have the chance to fully avenge the high goals they were unable to complete a year ago. Newington was one of the teams that had their state tournaments canceled before it finished - three wins away from a state championship.
“At Newington, we play with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder just because we won’t have an opportunity to compete for a state championship,” Tancredi said. “So hopefully we can get back to where we want to be this season.”
Unlike professional sports and some collegiate sports that have the infrastructure to somewhat simulate the gameday experience outside of a pandemic, that hasn’t possible at the high school level, making the difference ever more evident. Getting the chance to play again surpasses everything, but it isn’t a complete escape.
“I think there was a little bit of excitement, but a little bit of apprehension, as well, for what to expect,” King said. “It’s not the same, it’s a bit of a downer. Mom and dad aren’t here, fans aren’t here, the noise isn’t here.”
Matt Hornick can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org