After weeks of planning, strategizing and obtaining approval and guidance from multiple governing bodies, it can be said for the first time since November: Let the games begin.
The winter season kicked off for Manchester Essex High School teams this week, giving athletes participating in sports like basketball, skiing, swimming and skiing the opportunity to compete with other schools in the Cape Ann League.
With that in mind, this winter should look different in many ways than seasons past. New guidelines have been put in place in hopes of making each sport safer to play in light of COVID-19 restrictions, and in some instances will alter how games are played.
“This season has been nothing like anything before,” explains ME ski coach Timothy Wonson. “Practice was delayed for weeks. Bradford - where we train and race - is under tremendous pressure to maintain social distancing guidelines. Our season has already been reduced from seven races to four, and the MIAA state championship race has been canceled. The differences go on from there.”
It’s a new ballgame for basketball coaches and players as well.
“The MIAA has outlined some changes to the game itself, such as no out-of-bounds under the hoop, no jump ball to start the game, and no one in the lane on the first free throw,” explains Manchester Essex girls basketball coach Lauren DuBois. “At practices, we are sure to keep the player socially distant when they are in line for drills and taking breaks. I keep the same partners throughout the practice for drills. I don’t think it will impact us too much in games.”
Key changes have also been made to how the swimming/diving team will practice and compete this season. During practice, swimmers take turns, with one on each end of the pool and one in the middle, creating safe space between them. Meets will be very different than in year’s past. Swimmers are in the pool Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, divers get the pool for practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“For COVID, the swimmers will start in the pool at different points: Two at each end and one in middle,” explains swimming/diving coach Amy Boyden. “Divers must be six feet apart, and masks on when out of water. It takes some getting used too, missing out on kids socializing at walls for swim.
Boyden adds: “Meets this year are virtual, so there will be no one next to you racing to out touch for points. [In] high school swimming, you need points to win the meet. Also, no cheering, and kids can’t be at the end of the pool together, cheering for teammates.”
New guidelines have affected more than just how athletes compete and practice; they also are affecting who can compete and practice.
For swimmers and divers – both the girls and boys teams are hoping to build off of twin 4-2 winning records last season – the expected roster is smaller than in years past thanks to a new rule.
“Manchester Essex has a new rule this year due to COVID that anyone who participates in high school athletics cannot participate on a club team during the season,” explains Boyden. “Unfortunately, the club swimmers had to make a choice between club and high school, and all chose club. The club swimmers are used to a minimum of five practices during the week, and two-to-three practices a week isn’t enough time for them.”
The ski team faces a similar challenge when it comes to roster composition. The boys team finished at 6-6 last season, the girls team was 5-9 last season.
“We have a smaller team this year as seventh and eighth-graders are not allowed to participate,” says Wonson. “We have many returning high school racers. It’s hard to say how prepared we will be until we can get on the snow and start to create the new normal.”
Manchester Essex basketball teams will compete exclusively against teams in their own division this winter, similar to the Cape-Ann-League-only regular season Hornet teams played this past fall. There also remains the possibility of postseason play this season – for example, the option for a CAL-only tournament is on the table if things go according to plan in 2021 - something that was not a possibility for autumnal sports.
This might extend the season for the basketball teams, with both coming off of winning seasons – the boys were 15-5 last winter, the girls were 11-9 – and both returning key players in 2021. The girls team has seven seniors coming back, which should help ease the transition when it comes to the changes in guidelines and play this year. It’s a similar situation for the boys team.
“The team is returning three starters in captains Frank Wood, Jack Shaw and AJ Pallazola,” says ME boys basketball coach Timothy St. Laurent. “In addition to our captains, two key players that played large roles last year are also back in Alex Furse and William Larson. After these returning players, we are blessed with a bunch of great players to go against any challenge our opponents present to us.”
The season is starting a few weeks later than usual – winter sports usually begin in mid-December in non-COVID years. The preparations needed to ensure everything could be started up safely delayed the start of the season to the beginning of 2021.
For example, the boys basketball team got three practices in before Christmas break, three in before the new year, got one in on Monday and began the regular season on the road against Lynnfield on Jan. 5.
“This year is definitely different than years past in terms of preparation,” says St. Laurent. “The team usually has three scrimmages to prepare for the season, but these are not taking place this year.”
The girls basketball team will also begin its season without any preseason games, facing off against Ipswich on Jan. 8.
“We have fewer practices this pre-season and no scrimmages which is the biggest difference,” says DuBois. “So, our first game will be out first test.”
At least the basketball teams have had the opportunity to pass the ball around the gym and get in some conditioning and shooting together to this point. The ski team didn’t start skiing together until Jan. 6, with the first race of the season scheduled for Jan. 13.
“We started dry land practice the week before Christmas break,” says Wonson. “We've been using the time primarily to get to know each other as a team and to start working out together.”
Like the other teams, the swim team got in a few weeks of practice before starting right up with the regular season. Meets will require the use of two pools, and will even happen on different days. For example, the first meet against Ipswich, divers were set to compete against the Tigers on Jan. 6, and swimmers will get their turn on Jan. 8.
It looks like this will be a bit more condensed season than usual, with regular season play wrapping up in mid-February.
“Much different from previous years,” says Boyden. “Later start, but still runs about eight weeks. We usually swim 12 weeks, which includes sectionals and states.”
Despite playing a shorter season with the new rule and guideline changes, ME coaches and players are simply happy to get a chance to play, something that is not a foregone conclusion in our current environment.
“I’m happy student athletes will have a chance to compete, even if it’s different,” says Boyden.
Jason Brisbois covers sports for The Cricket. Read this and all his columns at thecricket.com.