Robert Zayas image

NYSPHSAA Executive Director Robert Zayas

Not yet ready to say “uncle” when it comes to the possibility of high-risk winter sports basketball, ice hockey, wrestling and competitive cheerleading competing this winter, New York State Public High School Athletic Association Executive Director Robert Zayas announced Tuesday, Nov. 17, a delay in these sports to Jan. 4, 2021. Zayas admitted this date was “arbitrary” and will require approval from Gov. Andrew Cuomo as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise not only in New York State, but throughout the country.

“That is obviously contingent upon authorization from state officials,” Zayas said.

He added, “It gives us more time to work with state officials as they examine and analyze their metrics and hopefully we’ll get authorization at some point in the month of December to begin on January 4. But right now January 4 is just an arbitrary date that we are hoping and we are optimistic that we can receive authorization at some point.”

Alternatives to having high-risk sports compete this winter include moving them to the Fall 2 season in March with high-risk fall sports football and volleyball or to the spring. All seasons have shortened, altered dates. Most sections that competed this fall — Sections 8 and 11 on Long Island pushed all sports to 2021 — have wrapped up or are wrapping up now, with a mostly successful foray into pandemic athletics with soccer, cross-country, field hockey and girls tennis, with girls swimming and diving being pushed to Fall 2 in Section 1 due to a lack of facilities.

Scarsdale and Edgemont are completing their fall season this week or early next week with postseason tournaments. No Scarsdale or Edgemont teams were shut down for more than two days at a time during the regular season due to contact tracing within the schools, and the only team to pull out of postseason was Edgemont field hockey, which was missing six players due to quarantine.

“Overwhelmingly [at] the sections and schools that were able to play sports this fall it was a positive experience for the student-athletes and the school districts,” Zayas said. “I think getting kids engaged is an important aspect and … one of our priorities at this point in time is trying to find a way to provide those participation opportunities for student-athletes.”

Low and moderate risk winter sports bowling, gymnastics, indoor track and field, skiing, and boys swimming and diving have been approved by the state to begin Nov. 30, though for some, the availability of sports facilities could be an issue.

High-risk sports do have the go-ahead for nonmandatory off-season workouts, with physical contact not permitted.

Zayas said the lines of communication between his office and state officials have been constant and positive; he said there is no Plan B for high-risk sports as of yet as his office has committed to remaining “nimble.” He also said athletics “is not at the top of the priority list and we can certainly understand why.”

“We are not going to cancel prematurely,” Zayas said. “We are not going to make a decision in November to cancel the winter sports season without having readily available information and being able to work with our state officials. I am very cognizant there are over 600,000 student-athletes [who] are relying upon association and our 11 sections to provide them with the opportunity to participate in interscholastic athletics. We take that responsibility very seriously and we are going to do everything that we possibly can to provide those participation opportunities for student-athletes.”

State championships were canceled for the fall, but are currently scheduled for the rest of the school year.

“We would very much love to be able to host state championships as the culminating events that kids are used to, but right now where we’re at, participation is the No. 1 thing we’re focused on,” said NYSPHSAA Director of Communications Chris Watson.

Local reaction

Coaches are both skeptical and hopeful about the new start date for high-risk winter sports as they see the trend in positive COVID cases rising daily. They do appreciate Zayas and NYSPHSAA continuing to advocate on behalf of student-athletes.

Scarsdale cheerleading coach Stacy Monteiro realized early on that her sport, which is unofficially a fall/winter sport, wasn’t going to take place in the fall. Until this week, she was preparing for a Nov. 30 start date. While she’ll now prepare for Jan. 4, she plans to offer off-season workouts with the team once or twice a week both for their physical and mental well-being. The spring workout season was canceled due to coronavirus, so she’s been Zooming with the team and sending workouts since March.

“Our spring got cut short and the fall and winter keep getting pushed back, so they’re pretty devastated,” Monteiro said. “I think they keep putting out these dates so we prepare and we prepare and get excited and then it’s like, ‘No.’ They keep taking it away, so I think the constant back and forth has been difficult. I was preparing for Nov. 30. The kids were excited.”

For cheerleading, pyramids are the only aspect that require physical contact by the girls, so Monteiro would be fine eliminating that one stunting part of the performances in order to get the season going. After all, the girls can still do the traditional aspects of the sport, which include dancing, cheering, tumbling and jumping.

“In my honest opinion I don’t think we’ll be starting Jan. 4 the way things have been going, which is unfortunate because there are things we can do. Stunting is a big issue, but we can do everything else,” Monteiro said. “I’m not sure if they’re looking at this and taking that into consideration at this point. It can be individualized. I’d rather do something with them this year rather than nothing.”

Getting the girls back with each other and “bringing up their spirits” is Monteiro’s top priority. “They need to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel at some point,” she said. “We’re trying to be hopeful.”

Edgemont coach Larry Giustiniani knows a drop in COVID-19 cases will be the key to getting high-risk sports off the ground. His team missed out on softball in the spring and now he’s watching his girls basketball players see their season potentially evaporating.

“We have to recognize it’s something kids value during this time in particular and they draw a lot of benefits from it,” Giustiniani said. “Three more months indoors not playing? If it can be done safely, we’d like to have an opportunity to have some input.”

While many around the country and locally have lost recruiting opportunities, at Edgemont it’s about the love of the sport and the camaraderie as Giustiniani continues to build a skills- and commitment-based competitive program the girls can be proud of. Basketball has been the same type of build and that program has seen league titles and competitive postseason tournaments.

“I hope they are taking the kids’ mental well-being into consideration at this young age,” Giustiniani said. “The cellphone generation is being told it’s OK to be on your cellphone. I certainly hope we play sooner or later. That’s for darn sure.”

Giustiniani believes that basketball can be played safely — with players masked if necessary — and though he’d like to have an official answer about Jan. 4 by mid-December, he’ll be there on a moment’s notice.

“To give the kids a chance to play I’ll take finding out the day before,” he said. “I’ll shoot out a text and the next morning we’ll be in the gym.”

Scarsdale wrestling coach Jeremy Szerlip isn’t optimistic for high-risk sports this winter and he knows that moving to Fall 2 or even spring could force student-athletes to have to choose between their sports, though he believes that’s better than nothing.

“I would have been more hopeful if they came out with a date and a plan like New Jersey did with limiting the number of dual meets and the number of people, no tournaments, just regional competition,” he said. “I feel like they’re just putting it off, but I hope they don’t give up on the season.”

Szerlip believes risk can be effectively mitigated within the sport by limiting the kids to certain practice partners and only being unmasked when you’re on the mat to wrestle, though masks could be deemed mandatory at some point. “I think it would be hard to wear a mask with wrestling, but I also thought it would be hard to wear a mask during soccer and the kids seem to be doing fine with it,” Szerlip said.

Szerlip noted that the “saver” with wrestling could be that it’s not a team sport like soccer or basketball where everyone is out there together.

“Initially they were going to have us start Nov. 30 with no contact until January and I came up with a plan for that,” Szerlip said. “We can do a lot of stance in motion, work on our skills, the mental aspect. You can do tons of stuff that doesn’t require partners, so my hope is they look at that and realize we can do some wrestling. We can also do lifting and conditioning. Obviously you do need some contact if you want to get ready for a match, but I don’t want to start sports-specific too early.”

Szerlip has been in touch with captains Brendan Knopp and Johan Monge, who have been doing runs and workouts outside with the kids within the health and safety guidelines. “They’ve been great as far as keeping the team together as far as group chat and getting our freshmen involved,” Szerlip said. “We’re realizing how important sports are not for the sport, but for the socialization of it and that’s the thing kids are really missing out on. We’ve been in this for so long and kids are starting to move from their restrictions and I think that’s why we’re seeing the spread happening more. I think if they were cohorted with their sports teams we’d be better off. They would have that outlet.”

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