Joey Santamoor, third from left, accepts a check for new helmets from the Elks Lodge of Malone. The Malone Central School District athletic director reflected on his first year on the job as he navigated through the COVID-19 pandemic. Evan Wheaton/Malone Telegram

MALONE — Sometimes, a new job can be stressful.

Just ask Joey Santamoor. After succeeding Eileen Kilcullen’s 25-year tenure as the new athletic director for the Malone Central School District, he was immediately faced with a difficult task.

Santamoor had to cancel a football game, due to not having enough players during his first week on the job.

“As (Executive Director) Carl Normandin told me, who’s head of Section 10, ‘Boy, I’ve never seen an AD who’s had to come in and make such tough decisions in his first 48 hours,’” Santamoor said.

Just a few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the United States. New York State, like the rest of the country, shut down all high school athletics for two weeks. From there, yet another two weeks.

“Then, the governor (Andrew M. Cuomo) said we’re shutting down for the rest of the year and doing all-remote learning,” Santamoor said.

Due to the fluidity of the pandemic and ever-changing guidelines, Santamoor said the hardest aspect of his first year as athletic director was the communications factor with the state. There was no knowing exactly what would be expected on any given day.

“That was very tough, because we were given one report one day, then the next day it changed,” Santamoor said. “And three days from there, it changed again.”

The Fall I season didn’t start until three weeks into September. Athletic directors in Franklin and St. Lawrence Counties had to revamp their schedules for the abbreviated soccer and cross country campaigns.

Transportation via team buses was one of the bigger hurdles due to social distancing guidelines.

“Through all of this, it was a major concern trying to set up and make sure we can provide some normalcy to these student-athletes,” Santamoor said.

The Fall I season was relatively successful. Though, it wasn’t without a few setbacks. Some schools, like St. Regis Falls, started later due to COVID-19 testing not coming back fast enough for the Department of Health. Other schools like Gouverneur were shifted to remote learning upon tests coming back positive.

On Nov. 9, Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES announced that all Franklin County schools would go remote through Jan. 4. Santamoor saw his athletics department shut down yet again.

Despite the county-wide shutdown, Santamoor said he was proud of the Malone community for doing everything that was asked of them. Wearing masks, cleaning hands, getting temperature checks and COVID tests — Santamoor said everyone still did their part before the uptick in COVID-19 cases.

“I mean, they went above and beyond,” Santamoor said. “ … I was very impressed with the way this community — parents and students alike — came together just for a sense of normalcy.”

After a long waiting game for high-risk sports state guidelines, the NYSPHSAA released guidance in time for a micro winter season. After much doubt, basketball and hockey was back on in Malone.

Girls hockey was shut down due to COVID exposure, marking the last time Santamoor saw one of his programs suspended. The Fall II season was a success, but it wasn’t until the spring season that things began to really come together.

With the development of vaccinations — as well as outdoor sports becoming more logistically possible to pull off in the pandemic — spring athletes had a full regular season after missing one in 2020.

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, New York State allowed sectional tournament play. Sections had the option to opt in or out, and Section 10 moved forward with regional postseasons.

“(Normandin) was great to take those steps and start moving forward, for all athletics,” Santamoor said. “To be able to get the kids to go out and compete against other teams in the Section at the highest levels, and do as well as we did and as well as all the other school districts did, was simply amazing.”

The mask mandate was lifted at the start of Section 10’s spring postseason. Parents and fans were attending games. After Santamoor’s turbulent first year on the job, navigating sports in the pandemic, the final days of the school year started to resemble a return to form.

“Salmon River had a huge showing at all the baseball and softball games just to come watch and just be part of it. Same thing with Chateaugay,” Santamoor said. “St. Lawrence County had great representation for the track meets. It was great to see some normalcy such as that.

“And next year, we’ll see. If everything stays as well as it is, we’ll move back into the regionals and states. They’re baby steps, but they’re steps moving in the right direction.”

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