HUDSON VALLEY, N.Y. – The state’s decision to postpone the start of the varsity sports year by at least four weeks was not a popular one among some players and parents, but many local athletic directors say it was the right call.
“We have to get kids back in the classrooms,” said Christian McCarthy, athletic director of Katonah-Lewisboro Schools. “That’s our No. 1 goal, and that’s a daunting task.”
Fall season practices were scheduled to begin on Monday, Aug. 24. But given the uncertainty surrounding the start of the school year, extracurricular activities like sports are taking a backseat until at least Monday, Sept. 21.
“That gives us some time to get kids back into classrooms in the beginning of September,” said Dan Belfi, athletic director of Lakeland Schools. “It gives us a little leeway. It’s a difficult decision, but from a time standpoint, I think it’s the right call.”
The four-week delay eliminates the possibility of regional or state champions being crowned this fall.
The starting date represents only the day teams and individual student-athletes can officially begin practicing. Because of practice requirements, the earliest most fall seasons can begin is Monday, Sept. 28.
Despite receiving no guidance yet from the State Education Department or the Governor’s Office, schedule-makers can’t afford to take a wait-and-see approach. They must work swiftly on reworking schedules for seasons that may never happen.
“I think Sept. 21 is going to be here awfully quick,” said Roman Catalino, athletic director of Somers Schools.
Mahopac’s new athletic director, Stephen Luciana, stopped short of endorsing the state’s decision to postpone fall sports, saying he “understands” the reasoning.
“Everybody I think wants to see sports come back,” Luciana said, but the health and safety of students is the priority. “What I do appreciate is they’re just not looking to cancel the season.”
The state is also preparing for the fall season being wiped out entirely. If that happens, three condensed seasons could be played beginning with winter sports in January (Jan. 4 – March 13), fall sports in March (March 1 – May 8) and spring sports in April (April 5 – June 12). The latter two seasons overlap by almost four weeks, creating conflicts for students who play both fall and spring sports, such as football and lacrosse. All athletic directors who spoke to Halston Media called that “unrealistic.”
“Our programs are what they are because of multi-sport athletes,” McCarthy said. With the overlaps, smaller schools might have trouble even fielding teams. “I just don’t see how that would possibly work in our community. It was outside the box, but I don’t think it’s realistic.”
After the hypothetical scenario was released, Catalino said his phone was ringing off the hook with concerned spring coaches.
Lakeland’s athletic director agreed about the unrealistic overlaps but said the foundation of the scenario is solid. For it to work, Belfi said, the seasons would have to be condensed even further to eight or nine weeks.
“I’m optimistic we’ll get three seasons in somehow this year,” Belfi said. “The next month should be telling, for sure.”
Many parents and student-athletes had trouble making sense of the postponement, given that most sports have already been given the green light to resume competition in New York State. Belfi said it’s not an “apples to apples” comparison.
“These are school sports, and these are an extension of the school day. Our first priority is getting kids back in the classroom,” Belfi said. “You have to separate the entities, but that’s been tough for people. And I get it. People have been cooped up in their homes.”
Luciana, whose kids are currently participating in club sports, said he’s sympathetic to parents who might be upset by the state’s decision.
“I’m frustrated right along with them,” Luciana said. “We have educators who are certified coaches who cannot be with their team and have a better understanding than just a baseball dad who’s coaching. The fact that youth clubs are going and our school kids with certified, professional, educated coaches are not is a tough pill to swallow, but unfortunately that’s what the governor wants right now.”
At the very least, Luciana said, the students should be able to participate in off-season programs so they can better prepare for the fall seasons.
“I’m watching my 13-year-old play, but we can’t get our high school kids out there with our coaches who will make sure that all guidelines are followed,” Luciana said. “The high school coaches would probably do this in such a professional way.”
Schools have been given little guidance beyond the new starting date, making it difficult for athletic directors to make any firm projections.
“The issue with the whole thing is the unknown,” McCarthy said. “Right now, is it possible that we have some form of athletics in the fall? It’s definitely possible. It won’t be the way we know it. It might not be every sport. We have to mindful what sports are higher risk for transmission than others. But I think all those things will have to play themselves out.”
Luciana said his office will operate under the assumption that sports will begin on Monday, Sept. 21, while preparing for it to change at any minute.
“The worst part is the uncertainty,” Luciana said. “I think all options are on the table right now.”
Given how COVID-19 has spread differently in different regions, a one-size-fits-all approach to regulating sports in New York State might not be feasible.
“I think it should be regional,” McCarthy said. “If you’re up in the Finger Lakes and your infection rate is nonexistent, I don’t think you should be impacted the same way if there’s a hotspot on Long Island.”
Though varsity teams can’t live in a “bubble” like professional sports teams, there are still ways to limit exposure.
“Maybe we create athletic cohorts—community cohorts within the athletic world,” McCarthy said. “Maybe it needs to be, here’s a cluster of schools; here’s John Jay, [Horace] Greeley, Bedford, Byram Hills and Somers. You’re going to play each other in everything. So, you might play a team three times… It just seems to make the most sense. The more local we can stay, the better off we can be.”
Other scenarios, like the spring season being extended into July, seem less realistic.
“From a dollars and cents point-of-view, contracts end when schools end [in June],” McCarthy said. “That’s all bargaining; that’s not in the contract in any way, shape or form.”
Though teenagers appear to be less susceptible to COVID-19, their worlds have nonetheless been turned upside down. Luciana said he’s been impressed with how his students have handled such a difficult situation.
“The kids deserve all the credit in the world,” Luciana said. “For 15-, 16-year-old kids to have this all taken from them, they’ve really handled this so well. I don’t think they’ve gotten enough credit. I know they’re chomping at the bit to get out there. We’re just waiting for the OK. The kids will be ready to go.”
Belfi said athletic directors are just as eager to get going.
“We’re waiting for further direction. We want to get this right for kids,” Lakeland’s athletic director said. “As soon as we get a rulebook to play with, we’ll play the game.”