Salmon River girls soccer coach Elizabeth Durfee instructing the Shamrocks. Evan Wheaton/Malone Telegram

MALONE – High school sports are on the brink of returning in the North Country, with the first league games scheduled for Friday and Saturday.

Various coaches in northern Franklin County have weighed in on the difficulties this unique year has brought forth throughout the past few weeks of practices.

Before Section 10 even gave the go-ahead for low- and moderate-risk sports, it was the not knowing that nagged student-athletes.

“One of the biggest challenges I found is communicating with the students when everything is going to start,” Franklin Academy girls cross country coach Chad Lawrence said.

Student-athletes wearing masks during practices have caused great concern for some coaches. It’s been difficult to see how much teams are able to do with them on as opposed to what they’d normally do in any other given preseason.

“I think they’re having a hard time with the masks. I’m having a hard time because I normally push these guys like crazy, especially the first week or two,” Franklin Academy boys soccer coach Christopher Yaw. “We go nuts and I push them like crazy.”

They haven’t been pushed like crazy this year, instead seeing what they physically can and can’t do. For Yaw, the past couple of weeks have been about testing the waters to see what his group can handle.

“(Just) figuring out what can I do that’s not gonna kill em, but is gonna be preparing for other teams to get us going. I don’t want to get to a game and have other teams like – we have to deal with the masks but I guess that’s my hardest thing, figuring out what’s enough, what’s too much, what’s not enough.

Cross country and soccer teams across the North Country have been taking “mask breaks” to social distance and breathe without them on. But it isn’t uncommon for masks to come down during drills, which typically gets met with “a little less face” or “I’m seeing too much nose.”

“(It’s) hard because the guys just want to take them down whenever they need to breathe,” Yaw said. “And I tell them you can’t just be dropping that sucker during a game because you get one opportunity to put it back on and if you keep doing it, you get sent off the field. And if you keep doing it, Section 10’s got a two-game suspension if you get caught with your mask off too many times in a game.”

Overall, student-athletes have had a great acceptance of wearing masks throughout practices, and they pull them back up immediately if they come down.

The masks have become associated with the prospect of finishing out the abbreviated seasons, and the players recognize that.

“I have to say, the girls have been awesome about it because they want to play so much,” Salmon River girls soccer coach Elizabeth Durfee said. “They want to be here, this is something they’ve been looking forward to. Quick reminder, if it slips down behind their nose they pop it back up. They want to play, so it seems they’re working through it.”

It’s apparent that no one is necessarily happy wearing masks, especially when conditioning with them on under the sun.

“I’m sure there are complaints afterwards, but I have to give the girls a ton of credit because our district right now, you can see students still walking with masks on after practice,” Durfee said. “I think it just shows how much they really want this and that’s a big thing to make the season work, is wearing the mask appropriately and hopefully it’s put to good use.”

The social distancing factor has had a huge impact on how practices are carried out.

Instead of getting two hours in, practices have run from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day. There haven’t been scrimmages either, and programs have had to adapt to different methods on the fields.

“I think the big thing with preseason is that scrimmage opportunity – we’ve all had to stay in our cohorts, so it’s not always that I can work with the JV team who is sharing a field, we’re trying to keep our groups separate, so I can’t rely on that to be a scrimmage either,” Durfee said.

“I guess that should be one of the biggest thoughts too, we’re not getting that inter-squad challenge, our numbers aren’t as high. So, (we’re) trying to do a lot of small sided and possession to gain that, but it’s still just not a full field effect.”

Although numbers on the field aren’t as high as normal due to the separated groups, there are more newcomers now than in the past.

Two volleyball players joined the Salmon River girls soccer team. Swimmers joined the girls cross country team at Franklin Academy. More and more student-athletes are opting to play different sports as their seasons shift around.

“I think it’s eye-opening, I think it’s a great experience for them. I mean, why not be a four-sport athlete?” Durfee said. “You spend all this time when you’re a three-sport athlete, very rarely do you have three weeks off, so why not take advantage of it without having to make a decision.

“That’s one of the questions I’ve been asking my girls, is, ‘what’s their Fall II sport going to be?’ Because I think everyone should have the opportunity to be a four-sport athlete. Looking back as an adult, that would’ve been a dream.”

Practices have been one thing, but coaches, as educators, have had a whole other beast to deal with.

In such a chaotic time for school districts during the first month of school, coaches have had their schedules – and class structures – completely transformed into something no one has seen before.

“It’s been a challenge not only for the students because it’s a totally different schedule than what they’re used to, but the teachers, our schedules are completely unusual and we have a really wide variety of sizes of classes,” Franklin Academy boys cross country coach Matt Tessier said.

Tessier’s smallest in-person class is made up of eight students, while his largest is 20. All his remote classes are 20 students or more.

“And that keeps you pretty busy when you’re trying to get those done and planning done,” Tessier said. “Most of the teachers are doing all their planning on Wednesday – the phys-ed staff is teaching all day Wednesday. So we’re keeping busier than anyone else these days and it’s usually the other way around.”

The spring seasons being cut short followed by the quarantine, along with fall seasons being in question as schooling became hectic, has caused concern for students’ mental health.

With some sections of New York State allowing low- and moderate-risk fall sports, and others pushing them or cancelling altogether, Section 10 athletes sat on pins and needles as they awaited their own decision.

Before the Sept. 21 go-ahead for practices, educators in the North Country took mental health very seriously. The conversations still continue even with the preseason drawing to an end.

“I definitely think it’s given our students something to look forward to. I think those first two weeks before we were able to start when we were still getting guidelines in place, that was a big topic of conversation amongst our student body,” Durfee said. “I’m here because I want to play – they’re making that connection that if I come to school, I then play a sport. So I think that was a big drive for a lot of these students

Friday and Saturday mark the return of high school sports in Section 10. After a difficult preseason, student-athletes are ready to take the fields and courses alike.

“The guys are coming around to it, it’s tough,” Yaw said. “But I’ve been trying to tell them a limited season and limited circumstances is better than nothing.”

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