High school basketball will have much different look — and sound — when it resumes

Friday, January 8, 2021 | 3:15 PM

When Buddy Valinsky coached in the City League, basketball games were played in the afternoon in front of only a few fans.

Some games had no audience because of intensified, neighboring rivalries officials feared could lead to trouble.

“It was pretty quiet sometimes,” said Valinsky, who coached Allderdice, his alma mater, to six City titles before becoming the coach at Norwin last year.

But those were different safety concerns and a different kind of lockdown than teams and fans are preparing to face today.

Basketball season opens Friday after a three-week pause by Gov. Tom Wolf, and the atmosphere at games could be quite similar with schools banning or limiting spectators because of the covid-19 pandemic.

Some schools won’t even have to pull out the bleachers.

Gyms can be at only 5% to 10% capacity, according to state guidelines, and that counts teams, referees and game day personnel.

Games might look familiar once the back-and-forth commences, but the atmosphere will be drastically different.

We’re talking the excitement level of some shirts and skins pick-up after practice.

“You’re going hear a lot of squeaking sneakers on the floor,” Valinsky said. “There weren’t many people at our fall league games. It might be like that.”

Penn-Trafford hosted a girls-boys doubleheader on Dec. 11, the Friday before Wolf’s mandate went into effect. The night went smoothly — and not just because the Warriors swept the games. A few fans were spread out in the stands, teams social-distanced on the bench areas and workers disinfected bleachers in between games.

“It can be done,” Penn-Trafford athletic director Kerry Hetrick said. “You need to get everyone on the same page and following the guidelines. Our coaches and teams have done a great job here, in the fall and in the winter so far.”

Some local schools, such as Latrobe, Norwin, Jeannette, Southmoreland and Greensburg Central Catholic are allowing only parents of their players to attend games. No visiting fans are permitted.

At Franklin Regional, it’s two people per home player and coach. Belle Vernon is not allowing any spectators.

Players can expect reverberations and echoes.

“It’s going to look a lot different, no matter where you play,” Jeannette senior guard Toby Cline said. “The crowds are going to be able to hear everything, the same way they did with football.

“There was a (football) game where my mom heard me say something (off color). She also could hear coach (Roy) Hall yell at me for it.”

Valinsky brought up another interesting point about the barren gyms.

“You won’t be able to scout as much as you used to,” he said. “You won’t be able to come in and film.”

Teams might have to find a way to see other teams’ Hudl videos, or come up with an alternative way to get a video camera into the gym.

Then there is the face mask issue, which has become more prevalent in recent days.

“We wore masks in a scrimmage,” said Southmoreland junior forward Gracie Spadaro, last year’s Trib Westmoreland Player of the Year. “It was different. It was a slower game. I mean, things could pick up, but it won’t be like the quick up-and-down.”

School districts can decide if masks are mandatory.

If teams refuse to play, forfeits or “no contests” could come into play like they did in the fall with football.

A social media photo from a scrimmage last month might have captured perfectly what is to come: One team wearing masks, some that had slid down over their chins, while the other was mask-less.

Chairs along the team bench areas were spread out considerably for social distancing.

“It is up to the schools to determine how they want to approach the (mask) mandate locally,” WPIAL executive director Amy Scheuneman said. “And then we will need to decide how to account for games not played due to conflicting mask policies.”

Norwin senior guard Danielle Rosso said the masks have taken an adjustment — literally.

“It definitely has been a struggle, but I feel our team has been doing pretty good with it,” she said. “Sometimes when we’re running it’s hard to breathe, so I’ll have to adjust it. Other than that, I try to not think about it.”

While many schools are on board with the masks at all times, others are leaving it up to the players. Some have said they won’t play a team that refuses to cover their noses and mouths.

“As long as we follow ours (guidelines) and they follow theirs, everyone should be happy,” Southmoreland boys basketball coach Frank Muccino said. “You do what you can and follow what your school says. We haven’t had any complaining here. Just play by the rules.”

Teams already have faced delays and postponements because of increased cases of covid-19 in Westmoreland County and throughout the WPIAL.

Greensburg Salem boys coach Mark Zahorchak said the daily uncertainty will be the greatest challenge for coaches.

“We don’t know from day to day if we are going to practice or it is going to be called off because someone was exposed or the school is shutting down sports,” Zahorchak said. “I lost one player because he lives with his grandparents and his parents are afraid he would bring covid home, so he could not play.”

The Greensburg Central Catholic boys, Norwin girls and Southmoreland girls have had run-ins with positive covid cases or potential exposure, resulting in down time.

“It’s a yo-yo type of thing,” Muccino said. “You have to be flexible and be ready for anything that happens.”

Home-schooling also has presented issues for teams.

“The fact that the kids are not in school makes it difficult for some kids to get a ride to practice. Plus, we don’t have that contact during the day with the kids who we were always able to catch in the halls or call down to our rooms when we needed to see them.”

A lack of fans won’t hinder play, Valinsky said. Especially when teams realize how fortunate they are just to be playing.

Hundreds of college teams can’t say the same thing.

“Any time you’re dealing with high school kids, I think they’re going to want to play for pride,” Valinsky said. “Fans or not. It will be competitive once section play starts. Two teams will compete.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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