HUDSON VALLEY, N.Y. – Football, volleyball, and competitive cheer, considered higher-risk sports by New York State, are being sidelined statewide until March 1—a time when COVID-19 would be theoretically less of a threat to players, coaches, and officials.
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association made the announcement on Wednesday, Sept. 9.
“We’ve spent two days speaking with nearly 500 athletic directors across the state, and it’s clear that administering high-risk fall sports during the COVID-19 pandemic presents a significant challenge for our member schools,” said Dr. Robert Zayas, NYSPHSAA executive director, in a press release.
Section 1 student-athletes who play junior varsity or varsity cross country, field hockey, girls tennis, and boys and girls soccer can begin officially practicing with their teams on Tuesday, Sept. 29. Girls swimming remains in limbo, as the lack of available facilities could postpone the season.
Even though football and the fall season go hand-in-hand, the Section One Football Coaches Association said the decision to postpone pigskin until the spring was “the best possible outcome for our sport given the circumstances.”
Technically, volleyball and football will be part of a second “fall” season and not the spring season, which has been pushed back a month to April 19. Some have pointed out potential issues with fall II and spring sports overlapping, possibly for a few weeks.
However, the overlap would mostly affect fall II sports that advance deep into the postseason. Even then, overlap would mostly be spring sports practices, not competition. Additionally, fall II student-athletes will have their minimum spring sports practice requirements knocked down from six to three (except in baseball, which will be four), allowing them to compete earlier.
“I think the initial response for most people was disappointment, because we were holding out hope that we could have a fall season,” said Pantelis Ypsilantis, Yorktown High School’s new head varsity football coach. “But I think Section 1 did a really good job. I think they got out in front of it and are giving us a chance to play football, as opposed to waiting.”
Regarding the potential overlap of fall II and spring sports, Ypsilantis said a hurdle exists but it is not insurmountable. He said student-athletes should not have to choose in which season they want to participate.
“Any coach who asks a kid to choose one or the other should not be a coach,” Ypsilantis said.
The coach, trying to put a silver lining on a less than ideal situation, said high schoolers in 2020-21 have the opportunity to become the first-ever four-sport student-athletes.
“If you’re playing multiple sports, it can be a pretty cool experience and something no one has ever done,” Ypsilantis said. “I’m trying to look at it in a positive way. But we will overcome this. At the end of the day, it’s hard to put so much focus on it when people are still dying out there.”
Mike Meadows, Lakeland High School’s head varsity football coach, called the decision to move football to March “a win.”
“It wasn’t looking too good over the last couple of months,” Meadows said. “It was mentally exhausting that this was being dragged out… At least the state took our boys into consideration and they’re giving us the opportunity to play in March.
Meadows also has an eye on the potential overlap of fall II and spring sports, particularly because spring sports were canceled last season and he does not want to see those sports disrupted again. However, he said it seems possible to maneuver the schedules in a way to limit the amount of conflict. A bigger concern for the Lakeland coach is the lack of an “offseason” in between sports. Particularly in football, offseason workouts are valuable in preparing players for the season.
As of last week, high-school football teams were not permitted to host any football-related activities. Once permitted, “contact between players may only be incidental and any activities that are specifically designed to promote close physical contact are prohibited,” the Section One Football Coaches Association said.
Many parents and players have protested the state’s decision to shift higher-risk sports to the spring, including a well-attended #LetThemPlay rally outside of the Westchester County Center in White Plains on Sunday, Sept. 13. Dom DeMatteo, Mahopac High School’s head varsity football coach, said it’s time to accept the new reality.
“I think the bottom line is you have to play the hand your dealt,” DeMatteo said. “It’s just human nature to not be that comfortable with change. But we’ve been uncomfortable since March, so this is just another thing.”
DeMatteo commended the New York State Public High School Athletic Association and its executive director, Dr. Robert Zayas, on taking a leadership role “when we desperately needed it.” The governor’s office’s earlier guidance, that higher-risk sports could practice but not play this fall, perplexed and frustrated many coaches and student-athletes.
“I’m just thankful we have an opportunity to play games,” DeMatteo said. “We have to do what’s best for student-athletes in all sports. That’s what this is all about: giving everybody a fair chance to play games. If they didn’t make this move, we weren’t playing games.”
Though volleyball is not a contact sport, one rationale behind postponing it stems from the frequent touching of the ball by the players.
“I understand it, but at the same time I do disagree with it,” said Nicholas Giordano, the new coach of North Salem’s varsity volleyball team. “In soccer, I feel like there is a little more physical contact than there is in volleyball.”
Kim Kelly, Somers High School’s head varsity volleyball coach, was similarly displeased by the state’s classification of volleyball as a higher-risk sport.
“Moderate [risk], I can kind of get behind. I wouldn’t call us low [risk]. But when we were put in high risk, it just felt confusing because, regardless of being indoors, there is no contact in volleyball,” Kelly said. “There is some sustained being in inner personal space, but there is no contact, which is something you can argue there is for field hockey or soccer.”
Kelly isn’t just worried about the overlap with spring and club sports, she’s also concerned about permanently losing would-be freshman players, who may choose to start their high-school careers by participating in other active fall sports.
The Somers coach said she was also frustrated by the “long, drawn-out” process before last week’s decision. Left in limbo until Sept. 9, volleyball coaches were unsure how or if to prepare for the fall season.
“We were almost in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation,” Kelly said. “We were all just at a standstill of doing nothing.”
As much as Kelly would like to see her volleyball team take the court in a few weeks, she does not believe that will happen.
“They’ve made their decision,” Kelly said. “I don’t think we’re going to get a reversal.”
Given the uncertainty surrounding the virus, the coach is not sure the fall II season will come to fruition, but is nonetheless telling her players to remain positive, healthy, and active, either by training at home or with a club team.