CANTON — The pieces for potentially playing high school basketball and hockey in Section 10 this winter are slowly falling into place.
And, as one would expect in the era of COVID-19, the 2021 season is shaping up to be unlike any other.
“Based on the online meetings I’ve had this week with the superintendents and athletic directors, the best-case scenario I see to start playing games would likely be March 1st,” said Section 10’s executive director Carl Normandin. “That way, all the schools looking to participate should have gotten their approvals from the county department of health and it would allow time enough for the student-athletes and coaches to be more adequately prepared.”
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association announced on Jan. 23 that high-risk winter sports would be allowed to start on Feb. 1 but would first require the approval of their respective county departments of health. Section 10 consists of 24 school districts with the vast majority located in St. Lawrence County. But with the inclusion of the combined girls hockey team from Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, the winter sports boundary stretches over four counties.
“Before any school district can start having practice for basketball and hockey, they have to come up with their plans for applying the COVID-19 guidelines and protocols. Those plans have to be approved by the boards of education and medical directors from each district. The plans then have to be passed on to and approved by the county,” Normandin said.
As of Thursday afternoon, only Ogdensburg Free Academy has gotten approval from St. Lawrence County’s DOH and would be allowed to start practicing varsity and junior varsity boys and girls basketball and boys hockey as early as Saturday. OFA is one of just two districts in Section 10 with its own ice skating facility but the Blue Devils will reportedly be using the community-run Lockwood Arena as their home rink this winter.
“I know that several school districts have chosen to move forward with their plans and there are still quite a few more that are going to make their decisions over the next two weeks,” Normandin said.
“At this point,” he added. “I expect more than half of the school districts are going to participate. The different districts are going to start on different dates depending on when they get approved by the county. I’m hoping we’ll have all the schools that choose to participate up and going with their practices by February 22nd. Going with the target date of March 1st for games just puts everyone on the same page.”
The COVID-19 guidelines provided by the state for all sports are designed to maintain social distancing and limit physical contact between athletes, coaches, referees and spectators, but since the winter sports take place indoors even stricter protocols will be put into place than the ones used for the 2020 soccer and cross country seasons, which lasted five weeks and ended with nearly half the school districts unable to field teams at one point or another due to coronavirus-related issues that forced them to switch to remote learning. Schools are not allowed to offer athletics on days when there are no in-person classes, according to state regulations.
The outdoors sports venues allowed for two spectators for each participating student-athlete but the change to indoor facilities for winter sports will likely mean no fans will be allowed in the bleachers. Lewis County teams that have already begun playing high-risk sports are not allowing for spectators.
“If you look around at the other counties and sections in our region, they have all adopted a policy of not having spectators and I wouldn’t be surprised if that turns out to be the case for us,” Normandin said.
The teams in Section 10 traditionally compete for Northern Athletic Conference regular season honors. There are three eight-team divisions for basketball based on school size and location, two divisions for boys hockey and one for girls hockey. Regardless of how many school districts move forward with plans to field basketball and hockey teams, there will be no NAC format this winter.
State guidelines for interscholastic games prohibit teams from traveling outside their home county to compete so Harrisville Central, which is the only school in the section located in Lewis County, is competing against other teams from Lewis County in Section 3. Another six schools are located in Franklin County and will only be competing against each other.
“Once we have our final commitments, the schools will be grouped together by location. These groups of three or four teams will be called ‘cohorts’ and they will only play games against each other,” Normandin said. “One of the guidelines is limiting travel as much as possible and to reduce the amount of interaction between school districts.”
“For example, say Canton and Potsdam decide to move forward with sports. They might play in Potsdam on a Monday then turnaround and play in Canton on Thursday. That way, should there be a potential exposure, there would only be two districts to deal with for contract tracing,” he added.
The delay in the start of the 2021 winter sports season has also forced the section to push back the opening date for the Fall Sports Season II from March 1 to March 22. The second fall season was announced by the state late last summer and set aside for the high risk sports of football, girls volleyball and competitive cheerleading until a set of guidelines could be produced.
Girls swimming was considered a low-to-moderate risk sport by state standards and would have competed as usual during the fall months but non-COVID related issues at a number of the host pools would have caused an added delay and the section decided to group it into the second fall sports season.
“With the state canceling its spring sports championship, that allows us to carry our spring sports season longer into the school year. With the delay in starting our winter sports, it was decided to move the starting date for the second fall season to March 22 and have it run until April 25th,” Normandin said. “Those sports would be football, girls swimming, girls volleyball, cheerleading and boys and girls modified basketball. Wrestling, which is usually one of our winter sports, is tentatively scheduled for Fall II.”
“One of our goals this year as a section is to provide our student-athletes and coaches with some degree of normalcy. The first step is to at least have some practices and then hopefully move forward to playing games. But,” he said, “we want to do so in the safest manner possible.”