Above anything else, we have to acknowledge the harsh reality. Had this school year gone as planned, this would have been the weekend where state football championships were played at the refurbished Dome and, at the same time, things may have got underway for winter sports, especially basketball, ice hockey and wrestling. Instead, all is quiet, with COVID-19 keeping most students at home, talk of yellow, orange and red zones of infection, and football perhaps happening in March and April without sectional or state championships if “Fall Sports II” is given a green light at the state level, though at the moment only the “low-risk” sports seem safe to proceed later this month.
However, one small, yet encouraging sign of changed priorities might allow for some other high school sports. Due to the “orange” zone state designations, Onondaga County began asymptomatic testing all of the students, teachers and workers at elementary and high schools in those orange zones early this week. Of the thousands of tests done, only a bare handful of COVID-19 cases were found, and entire schools were found to have zero positive cases and thus were allowed to have in-person learning if they wanted. If this trend continues, it might prove, once and for all, that schools of all kinds are not spreaders of the virus as long as everyone takes the usual mask, social-distancing and sanitary precautions.
Here is where winter sports, notably the “high-risk” quartet of basketball, ice hockey, wrestling and volleyball could come back. If the continued high-volume school testing continues to show that schools have few, if any positive cases (a big if), then it’s far more likely that students and teachers in those buildings have followed all the rules and have kept themselves safe. Thus, gathering them together in any extracurricular setting is not as risky as perhaps first believed, based not on hope, but actual hard evidence. So not just sports, but clubs and music groups, could have a legitimate reason to gradually resume their activities and not just wait for the hoped-for vaccines sometime in the early spring.
What’s also helped is that city, county and state leaders all seem to be finally on the same page in terms of keeping schools open, if possible. They weren’t at the start of the fall, which explained how some places opened and others did not, leading to, in the case of high school sports, some sections having a modified fall season and others (like the Long Island sections and Section IV in the Southern Tier) not having one at all. But restaurants and bars stayed open despite their acknowledged central role in spreading COVID-19. Should this trend of prioritizing school continue, it becomes more palpable to also have activities such as sports so long as the health standards are followed – and in New York State, everyone masks up.
What ulitmately does this all mean? As of now for Section III the plan remains what it was a couple of weeks ago, for the low-risk sports of bowling and boys swimming to begin practice in mid-December and for their contests to begin in January, while waiting for the high-risk sports to get the go-ahead, if it ever does. At least with swimming, Section III coaches have discussed a safe concept where, if two teams have a meet, they gather at their own home pools, and specific races would feature swimmers establishing their own times while not actually competing against each other face-to-face. It’s novel, but could work for boys swimming and girls swimming, which got moved to Fall Sports II when facilities were not available.
And the same thing is being planned for boys and girls bowling once their seasons get underway at the start of the new year. For head-to-head matches, teams intend to set up at their home lanes and then the top five individuals will roll three games, as usual, adding up the scores and then matching them with scores from the other team at the other venue. This could lead to some very interesting results since lane conditions and scores tend to wildly vary depending on where you bowl. And that might not reflect who the best bowlers are until everyone gathers again. Still, local officials believe that it’s the best way to have any kind of 2021 season and not surrender it, the way others already did in the spring and fall.
In all of this, having sports and other activities for school kids of all ages could have a gigantic psychological effect. It’s well-known how deep of a mental toll the pandemic has taken on people of all backgrounds, but especially school constituencies. Teachers talk about burnout from long hours having to juggle in-person education for some, remote education for others. But for students, the rate of depression, along with the rate of those who have even talked about drastic measures like taking their own lives, has skyrocketed. It’s one thing to open the classrooms, but to have the groups and clubs and fun stuff (all done while following safety guidelines, of course) would serve both kids and their parents well, short and long-term.
As we head toward a possible basketball season, there’s news about two of the top girls players in Central New York. Jessica Cook, the Cicero-North Syracuse senior forward who is heading to the University of Toldeo next fall, is ranked as one of New York State’s top 10 senior players after she led the Northstars to the sectional Class AA title last winter. Then there’s South Jefferson junior Jackie Piddock, already a standout on the Spartans’ back-to-back sectional championship teams, whose stock has dramatically risen over the course of the last year, so much so that Piddock has received offers from a string of Division I schools, including Niagara, Manhattan, Marist and George Washington, coached by former UConn great Jennifer Rizzotti.
On the college basketball front, the delayed opening to SU’s basketball season had extended local angles. Bryant, who nearly defeated SU in the opener, had Liverpool 2018 state champion Charles Pride starting and getting 15 points for the Bulldogs, with Lucas Sutherland, of the 2019 West Genesee state Class AA champions, a reserve. And all that was before Niagara arrived in town late this week, bringing Greg Paulus home. Paulus took over as the Purple Eagles’ head coach just before the start of last season and did enough of a good job to warrant a contract extension. Now he would be in the Dome where he won a state football title quarterbacking CBA and then a year as SU’s quarterback after his playing days at Duke.
And it’s great to see how CBA graduate Stevie Scott III is tearing it up as a running back for the Indiana football team. The Hoosiers, long a doormat in the Big Ten, has gone 5-1 this season, its only loss a narrow one to mighty Ohio State, and Scott gets plenty of credit for this revival. In those six games, he has gained 405 yards on the ground and scored eight touchdowns, along with catching 10 passes. It was Scott who was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week for last Saturday’s effort against Maryland, where he gained 80 yards and scored three times, even taking “Wildcat” snaps after quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was injured. Scott and the Hoosiers could find themselves in a prestigious bowl on New Year’s Day.