November 30, 2021

High school sports are back — we think

Various sports balls/equipment stock

Hallelujah.

…Right?

The NYSPHSAA has announced that high-risk winter sports — basketball, hockey, wrestling can begin Feb. 1, eliciting a huge sigh of relief for athletes, coaches, athletic directors, parents, fans and, yes, sports journalists.

But there’s a catch — local departments of health must sign off on it first.

A number of factors are in play. Will athletes be required to wear masks like they were in the fall? How many games can teams reasonably play before Fall II season begins? Will spectators be allowed? And are reporters considered spectators like the typical fan?

“Our public health director will be meeting with other Central New York public health directors today to discuss this issue and then we will put out guidance and a statement for you and the public,” Cortland County Legislature Clerk Eric Mulvhill said in an email Monday morning.

So now we wait.

But it’s nice to have hope, and it’s especially nice for athletes who have waited so long and continued to practice all winter in the hope they will be able to join their bowling and swimming brethren on the playing fields this winter.

In my home state of Massachusetts, public high school sports — including basketball and hockey — have been underway for about a month, with all athletes wearing masks and distancing where possible on the benches.

I am for sure in a better place working at the Standard than if I had still been freelancing in Massachusetts over the past year. But once I saw Massachusetts teams sharing highlights on social media, I couldn’t help but feel like that meme where Squidward is in his house watching Spongebob and Patrick celebrating outside his window.

It’s hard to say whether that’s a good thing. From what I’ve read in Massachusetts, there have been few games canceled because of COVID outbreaks. And Boston University requires all athletes, home and visitors, to wear masks while playing games on their campus. So, obviously, there is a way to do all this safely.

At the same time, I don’t fault the NYSPHSAA, Gov. Andrew Cuomo or the state Department of Health for being ultra-conservative with giving the go-ahead to high-risk sports. With COVID cases on the rise again since winter began, nobody in that position of power wants to be held liable for unnecessary illnesses or, God forbid, deaths. After all, we are still averaging a Sept. 11 number of deaths from COVID daily across the nation. And the slow and plodding vaccine rollout has only made it worse.

But the grass isn’t that much greener in Massachusetts. My mother, father and stepmother are all in their 70s, as are the majority of their friends. They have no idea what the timetable is for getting their vaccinations, while senior citizens in New York are eligible to get theirs now.

I guess the mood right now in the sports department is cautious optimism. I hope I can start attending games next Monday and bring you the content you deserve. And if I can’t attend certain games, I at least hope the coaches can email me their summaries so I can get some news to you.

Because with the way winter sports were playing out in Cortland County before winter tournaments were shut down last March, it was like the last scene in the series finale of The Sopranos — it left us with the sour tastes of what-ifs and disappointment in our mouths.

So let’s grab something cold to drink, wash that taste out and hope for the best in the next few weeks.

Sam Feeley is the sports editor of the Cortland Standard. Follow him on Twitter @SamFeeleyPBP or email him at sfeeley@cortlandstandard.net.