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Fall sports make their winter start

Fall has arrived!

Well, in actuality, it’s still winter, but in terms of Long Island’s rejuggled high school sports calendar, Monday was the first day of the fall sports season.

“We’ve been waiting for this to day come,” excited Shoreham-Wading River girls soccer coach Adrian Gilmore said after her team’s first practice.

Both Nassau and Suffolk counties had opted to squeeze all three of their truncated sports seasons into the first half of 2021. So, the day after the conclusion of the winter season, practices began for the fall sports of badminton, boys and girls cross country, boys and girls soccer, boys golf, field hockey, football, girls tennis, girls swimming and boys and girls volleyball. The fall season is to run through April 25, with the spring season set to begin the following day.

Fall sports athletes who had all but written off their chances of having a season were overjoyed to return to fields and gyms. Undoubtedly, there were smiles behind those face masks.

“We were all very excited, very hyper just to get back on the court again,” Courtney Cocheo, a captain and outside hitter for the Greenport/Southold girls volleyball team, said. “I was so hyper.”

She wasn’t the only one. Even veteran coaches felt the same sort of enthusiasm after their teams had to sit out the fall of 2020.

“I’m so excited,” Gilmore said Monday. “I couldn’t sleep last night.”

Greenport/Southold girls volleyball coach Mike Gunther spoke about how rough the pandemic has been on student-athletes. “Honestly, moreso than any other year, I’m here for the kids this year,” he said. “We’re adults, we’re used to the rat race. They’re kids. They shouldn’t be used to the rat race yet.”

The last game the SWR girls soccer team played — way back in November of 2019 — was a 2-0 victory over Spencerport that brought the Wildcats their first state championship. “It feels like forever” since then, said senior forward Ashley Borriello.

This promises to be a strange “fall” season (just like almost everything else in the world these days): a brief preseason, game-packed schedules, health protocols that include weekly COVID-19 testing for athletes in high-risk sports such as football and volleyball, face coverings and social distancing.

Bryan Soto, a senior center midfielder for the Mattituck boys soccer team, said Monday was the first time he played while wearing a mask and he called it “horrible.” He said: “This season is going to be a war. We have a lot of battles.”

One thing this fall season will have that the recent winter season didn’t was fans — on a limited basis.

Section XI, the ruling body for Suffolk interscholastic sports, released spectator guidelines Tuesday for fall sports. No more than two spectators per athlete (home spectators only) may be permitted for indoor sports, subject to facility capacities. For outdoor sports, no more than two spectators per athlete will be permitted, subject to facility capacities. Section XI also noted that individual schools may be more restrictive.

Meanwhile, coaches are feeling the urgency to prepare their athletes for games that begin as early as Monday.

“It’s going to be a lot in a little bit of time,” Dan O’Sullivan said after overseeing his first practice as the new head coach of the Mattituck boys soccer team. His team’s first game will by a non-league contest Monday at Eastport-South Manor, where he was a former player and assistant coach himself. “We’re going to run like crazy the first couple of days because a week from today we’re going to be on a field and it counts, so we got to try to get as much fitness in as we can now,” he said.

Yes, it will be a different season. Even the way coaches approach it may be different.

“This year we really want to focus in on getting something more than the win-loss competition,” Gunther said. “For our team, we want everyone to get a good sense of fulfillment and happiness. With all that has gone on, winning has moved back in priority.”