Scaled-down version of high school sports resume for first time since March

Let the winter games begin!

At least for the low- and moderate-risk high school sports.

Over nine months since high school sports were shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, they are making a comeback. Monday was the first day of practice at Long Island public schools for the low- and moderate-risk sports of bowling, boys swimming, boys and girls winter track and field, fencing and girls gymnastics.

“Normalcy for these kids is so essential and you can see that it’s warming their hearts right now, getting something back that, you know, pre-COVID, people took for granted,” Shoreham-Wading River boys winter track coach Joe Mordarski said. “It’s really nice to see.”

Mattituck’s new boys winter track coach, Chris Cavanaugh, said: “It feels like it’s been a while. I didn’t think that it was going to happen, to be honest with you, but now that it got approved, I think it’s great for the kids, it’s great for the coaches.”

Sports that have been classified as high-risk by the New York State Department of Health have not received authorization to begin and are postponed indefinitely. Those high-risk sports are: basketball, boys lacrosse, competitive cheerleading, football, ice hockey, volleyball and wrestling.

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association has canceled all winter state championships.

Long Island’s public schools opted not to play in the fall. Instead, they plan to run compressed versions of all three of their sports seasons (each about eight weeks in length) in the first half of 2021. Winter sports are set for January and February, with fall sports in March and April and spring sports in May and June.

Because of budgetary reasons, Riverhead will not field teams this winter. SWR and Mattituck both will compete in boys and girls track, Southold has a boys bowling team and Southold/Greenport has combined boys and girls track teams.

The first Suffolk County contests — boys bowling matches — are scheduled for Jan. 11.

Section XI executive director Tom Combs said, “We’ve been working for quite a while since March for this day to occur, so we have quite a few safety protocols and we hope it’s enough to keep the kids safe and the coaches safe and let them continue to play, and hopefully it will open up the door for more sports to be getting back to action.”

Following Tuesday’s practice, SWR senior track athlete Kelly Logan said: “It was great being back and being able to run again. It was a big difference because over quarantine you’re running by yourself and it’s always hard to be motivated running by yourself.”

Her teammate, junior Olivia Stowell, had doubts this season would materialize. “I did not believe that it was going to happen,” she said.

Of course, the returning sports have had to make concessions to the pandemic, perhaps none more so than winter track, which once was an outdoor sport and has become one again — at least temporarily. Teams will run dual meets at high schools.

“One of the big challenges is keeping kids warm, keeping kids moving because it’s going to be cold,” Southold/Greenport boys track coach Joe Corrado said. “Once kids are out of the building, we’re not allowed back in no matter what.”

Logan said a “big wardrobe adjustment” is required to keep warm this season.

And there are other oddities such as specific rules for track athletes wearing face masks during competition, gloves for relay races and traveling track teams conducting their field events virtually. There has even been talk about scores not being kept at track meets, meaning a season without team wins and losses.

Emily Cook, a junior on the SWR girls track team, said: “There are a lot of new rules in place … We’re going to have to adjust to that and I think everyone’s willing to do that.”

Another interesting feature of this winter season: no fans. Athletic directors voted to prohibit spectators at practices and events.

“We want to keep these kids as safe as possible, and if that means not having spectators, then so be it,” Combs said. “You know, it’s not the best thing in the world. We don’t like it because we know how important spectators are, but on the other hand, if we give our kids an opportunity, then I don’t think we want to do anything to take that away from them.“

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

“We didn’t know if this season was going to happen,” Cavanaugh said. “It finally happened. Now, are we going to be able to make the whole season? There’s no postseason, so are they going to cut the season short because of that? That’s the biggest thing, and I try to tell the kids, ‘We’re going to run until they tell us not to; we’re going to compete until they tell us not to.’ ”

It sounds like a season no one will ever forget.

“Especially on those 30-degree days,” said SWR girls track coach Paul Koretzki.