High school winter sports set to attempt season with coronavirus waiting around every corner

Saturday, January 9, 2021 | 6:00 AM

In a normal year, real estate is hard to come by on the mats in the Kiski Area wrestling room.

Cavaliers wrestlers usually stretch wall to wall as they drill with practice partners and try avoid other teammates doing the same.

Over the course of a two- or three-hour practice, there is bound to be a collision or two, but because of coronavirus concerns, the Cavaliers have plenty of space these days as they prepare for opponents they can and cannot see.

“It’s like trying to stop someone from taking us down and you can’t see them,” said Kiski Area wrestling coach Chris Heater, whose team already had to go through a 14-day quarantine due to covid concerns. “Instead of someone coming at me and I can see they are getting ready to shoot on me (and attempt a takedown), so I’m going to sprawl or I’m going to block that shot, it’s I’m getting taken down left and right and I don’t know who’s shooting on me.”

The coronavirus pandemic still looms large and presents challenges to daily life for everyone, including high school sports teams.

The fall season survived, albeit with a pronounced limp. It managed to make it across the finish line.

Some coaches called it a miracle.

Now, can the winter season follow suit despite drastic spikes in covid-19 cases in Allegheny, Westmoreland and surrounding counties?

It’s possible, but chances are it won’t be a seamless feat. Pennsylvania’s total number of covid-19 cases since the pandemic began surpassed 700,000, according to the Pa. Department of Health.

Winter sports began Friday in western Pennsylvania, and area schools believe they are as prepared as they can be to start basketball, wrestling, swimming, rifle and gymnastics. They have followed return-to-play plans, as well as their own health and safety guidelines, specific to their districts.

Through four practices, Heater had five or six wrestlers missing at any given time, and he’s had to send some home because their temperature was too high.

The obstacles keep coming. Heater keeps sprawling. The Cavaliers keep charging ahead.

“Whatever my challenges were today, I’m sure I’ll have different ones tomorrow,” Heater said.

Heater and Kiski Area have taken the best steps they can though to eliminate those challenges ahead of time.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Cavaliers were proactive and installed a full sanitation system — the Hammer Sanitizing System. The system has piping installed throughout the ceiling of the wrestling room and sprays out a chemical that is mixed with water two or three times a day.

“It’s cleaning our room a couple of times a day in off times, and we also have the ability to override it and clean the room anytime we need to,” Heater said. “It’s been really good so far, and I think as we move forward into this year and into other years that it’s going to be beneficial to have that system because it cleans the air, it cleans the walls and it cleans the mat.”

The challenges Heater and his wrestlers face this year are endless, from practicing with masks on, to dieting correctly, to being on the same page as their opponents with protocols. Heater and the Cavaliers say they are up to the task to stay on the mat and compete.

Teams in all winter sports are making a number of sacrifices — a small price to pay, most say — just to have a semblance of a season.

“There is a big level of concern right now,” Southmoreland athletic director and wrestling coach Dan Boring said. “All we can do is control the things we can control. Everything else is out of our hands.”

On the basketball court, Greensburg Central Catholic did not have a traditional start to its season.

Then again, tradition doesn’t seem to carry much value in 2020.

Set to roll out the basketballs and begin preseason practice, GCC’s boys and girls teams had to find an alternate location to work out when winter sports practices opened Nov. 20 throughout the WPIAL.

The GCC gymnasium was undergoing deep cleaning and was closed for a week. The bleachers, walls and floor were disinfected as the school attempted to scrub away germs to combat covid-19 and make the facility safer.

“For three or four months (in the offseason), we’ve been going with the flow,” GCC boys basketball coach Christian Hyland said. “If we have to break from the norm for a little bit, that’s what we’ll do. As long as we get the chance to play.”

An impossible feat?

How does a basketball player battle for a loose ball in a pile-up on the court or tussle for a rebound without bumping into another player?

Better yet, how does a wrestler avoid close contact with an opponent, regardless of the starting position of a match?

It seems an impossible feat.

“For wrestling, we will limit the number of contact drills and how many people they can practice with in a practice or week,” Boring said. “This way, any kind of spread would be limited. We also will work in pods with some kids utilizing the weight room while others work in the (wrestling) room, then switch.”

Southmoreland moved its annual wrestling classic to a larger space. The event is set for Dec. 28-29 at the Murrysville SportZone.

Boring said he may use two mats for varsity home matches.

“We’re also looking at allowing the wrestlers to immediately shower after their match,” he said.

Hempfield wrestling coach Vince DeAugustine said cramming matches onto the calendar will be the largest challenge.

“We are facing an uphill battle for sure,” DeAugustine said. “The protocols that have been put in place are not really the issue. We are fine to wear masks during the entire practice. We are fine with social distancing. We have adapted well to all the rules they have put in place. Outside of positive cases on your team, the real issue is with scheduling.

“It becomes a mess with trying to juggle a schedule, especially outside of section play. Most of the top individual tournaments around the country have been canceled. Our guys want to compete and compete hard, but it’s a tough task to get that kind of schedule right now with how fluid things are.”

The prestigious Powerade Tournament is still on, and Hempfield will compete, but it too will come with changes. The event is set for Dec. 28-29 at Monroeville Convention Center.

DeAugustine said he would be in favor of a county-only schedule, with home and away matches with each school.

“It would limit long travel times, potential exposure at multi-team events and different rules for different counties,” he said. “We are fortunate in this county to have some of the best wrestling in the country, so it would be a huge win for everyone.”

Drastic changes are in store for the wrestling postseason, including less qualifiers for individual and team tournaments. The PIAA individual championship tournament will include eight-person brackets with two Super Regionals as qualifiers.

At Southmoreland, Boring said all athletes and coaches for all winter sports will be checked in and scanned for temperature before entering gyms in his district.

Hempfield wrestlers are working out in the gym, not the wrestling room, to create more spacing. And the Spartans’ swim teams are practicing in shifts with boys and girls in the pool at separate times.

Penn-Trafford has “sanitation stations” for basketball and swimming, which were recommended by school physician Dr. Kevin Wong.

Each station has touchless water coolers for athletes to refill personal bottles, and hand sanitizer and lotion for continuous use.

Why not us?

Despite a myriad of snags — delays, postponements and cancellations all connected to disruptive covid-19 — the fall sports season came and went.

Some football teams canceled games or had their season cut short because of program shutdowns caused by the virus, which began a surge in mid-October.

But there were soccer teams that not only made it through the regular season unscathed but also advanced deep into the postseason and traveled for state playoffs.

It can be done.

“I said repeatedly that the biggest mistake we could have made was not to try,” PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said in November. “And by trying, we (ended) up on Thanksgiving weekend done with fall sports because a whole lot of people did a whole lot of things right.”

But with all winter sports being played indoors, the pressures mount when athletes gather on a court, mat or pool and the doors slam shut behind them.

Winter events are confined to brick-and-mortar structures, not wide-open stadiums with fresh air and room to stretch out.

“There are a number of challenges facing our winter programs, but probably none greater than adapting to indoor activities,” Hempfield athletic director Brandon Rapp said. “Transitioning to the winter season and moving indoors presents a new set of hurdles that must be cleared in order to provide for a safe environment.”

It’s impossible to predict whether teams will able to finish the winter season.

“Obviously, cases are on the rise and indoors is completely different from being outside,” Belle Vernon athletic director Matt Humbert said. “But we figured out a way to have fall sports, volleyball included. I’m optimistic.”

Humbert, who also is his school’s football coach, said Belle Vernon separated varsity and junior varsity football players “to allow for easier contact tracing.”

The same concept could be an option in the winter.

Perhaps coincidentally, there were no covid shutdowns at Belle Vernon during the fall.

Lombardi said winter needs to be a measured, step-by-step process, methodical and tracked.

Quiet gyms

With the state cutting down on indoor gatherings, high school gyms were at a maximum of about 5-10% of capacity when the season began. Many schools are not permitting spectators at all.

The aforementioned percentages include the teams, coaches, referees and game personnel. Social distancing is enforced, regardless of the crowd size.

As for how many home and away games teams will have, that could change day to day and week to week.

“I am concerned for the winter sports moving forward,” GCC athletic director Dan Mahoney said. “With the recent spike and school teaching remote, it’s difficult to say if we can play the schedule on a consistent basis.”

Basketball teams already have canceled tip-off and holiday tournaments, annual staples of the season, to avoid bringing multiple teams together in one place.

Constant change

Athletic directors, coaches, teachers and athletes all share one thing in common: They are planners.

In a time where one small thing can change everything, they’ve had to find a way to battle something they can’t see, and it’s extremely frustrating.

“It’s constantly changing. If one kid gets covid, you have to quarantine, and it’s challenging because you don’t get the continuity at all,” Epps said. “Coaches are the same as anyone else. They like normalcy, they like continuity, and with the covid thing, you just don’t have that.”

As a result, athletic programs are figuring things out on the fly.

Since the beginning of November, the Fox Chapel hockey team has played five of its scheduled seven games, with two games canceled due to covid-related issues. The Foxes were set to take on Wheeling Catholic from Wheeling, W.Va. but the game was called off because of travel restrictions between the two states.

Although it’s been difficult to deal with the constant changes, Foxes coach Cam Raidna said everything has run relatively smoothly so far.

“The PIHL has done a great job of letting us know if a game has been canceled or rescheduled,” Raidna said. “They’ve let us know by at least noon on game day, if not before that, and we pretty much know when it’s been rescheduled shortly after. I think the PIHL as an organization has done a great job with the communication and the way they’ve been handling the whole situation.”

The unknowns that come along with the coronavirus pandemic can change things in an instant. They can change a lineup, cancel or postpone a game or even a season, which means schools, teams, coaches and players have to take extra precautions throughout the season.

“We could have a meeting and before that meeting ends, what we’ve talked about already changed,” Norwin athletic director Mike Burrell said.

Said Fox Chapel’s Eli Yofan, a junior on the basketball team: “I could get a call in an hour from my coach saying practice is canceled, someone on our team tested positive and we’re done for two weeks. We just need to know in the back of our heads that something could change within seconds, and we also need to be careful when were not with each other.”

Making waves

Southmoreland swimmers practice with those at Mt. Pleasant, so both programs are being asked to follow all safety precautions and keep space between them.

Obviously, masks can’t be worn underwater, but swimmers generally seem to be less susceptible to catching covid-19 at meets and practices.

Pools, with their humidity and sauna-like feel, might seem like a perfect place to get sick with swimmers leaving the winter cold, warming up for an hour or two in the water, then plowing back into a deep freeze.

But swimming might be the safest winter sport in these uncertain times.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pool water treated properly with chlorine should “inactivate” the virus, thus preventing spread. The chemical acts as a sort of insulation for teams.

“Swimming is a relatively low-risk sport and water-borne transmission is not a concern,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease doctor who works out of Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New York. “Water polo, where players have physical contact and are in close contact with each other, is a different issue though.”

The WPIAL has offered teams the opportunity to hold virtual meets where teams swim at their home pools and submit times to the league.

“There’s been a number of studies that I’ve looked at that chlorine will kill the virus, and you have to worry more about somebody breathing on you for an extended period of time, and with our kids, they are in the water,” Fox Chapel swimming coach Dan Taylor said. “They are breathing heavy into chlorinated water, so the fact that there hasn’t been any incident in a pool setting that I’ve read or that I’m aware of, and I’ve looked at a couple of studies, I feel like it’s probably the safest place that you could do an activity and be not too concerned about catching covid.

“I feel like we are in a pretty safe environment.”

Hempfield swimming coach Kevin Clougherty said preparation could be a greater issue for his athletes.

Hempfield swimmers were presented a significant disruption to their routine when the school shut down winter sports indefinitely when it was announced school would be conducted virtually through Jan. 4.

“I think the biggest challenge we have in our sport is planning our training sequences to be able to withstand one- or two-week closures,” he said. “Our sport is so dependent on conditioning. We have to be smart in how we approach things.”

Clougherty said fans have been used to blow air across the pool to circulate the chlorine in the air.

As for the other sports, clean equipment helps stop the spread. Basketballs and the racks that hold them are routinely cleaned, and players have their own water bottles.

Wrestling mats are constantly being disinfected.

“We stop and clean the basketballs after every drill,” Southmoreland girls basketball coach Amber Cernuto said. “We wipe everything down. Every girl is responsible for helping out with this.”

Weight and see

Each year, wrestlers enter their individual wrestling rooms and start the process of getting ready for the season. That involves drilling with teammates, improving their cardio and cutting weight to hit their target for the upcoming season.

Running in sweat suits, not eating for a certain amount of time and several other methods can lead to rapid weight loss. Some wrestlers lose weight in a healthy way, but others do so in a way that compromises their immune system.

Plum athletic trainer Ryan Kesterholt said the Mustangs have taken it upon themselves to teach their wrestlers healthier ways to diet and lose weight while still staying healthy.

“That’s something that we are trying to discuss with our athletes at Plum, about how to maintain a healthy immune system to avoid getting sick,” Kesterholt said. “So, along with talking to them about wearing a mask and washing their hands consistently, the normal protocol stuff, we’re going to talk to them about nutritional stuff as well which will help keep their immune system strong.”

Heater has been around the sport for close to 30 years. He knows when it comes to high school kids losing weight for wrestling matches, some do it the right way and some do it the wrong way. But he’s always given them the information and taught his wrestlers how to do it properly.

“We talk to our wrestlers about trying to eat right over a period of time and not be like somebody that eats whatever they want and try to crash a week or days before an event and then lets it go back up,” Heater said. “The roller coaster of dieting can really be harmful to them and can really make things difficult and beat their bodies up.”

Heater and his coaching staff just don’t leave it at that, though. At times, the Cavaliers have had wrestlers who needed to cut more weight than others and, on several occasions, Heater has made sure to give those competitors a little extra advice or guidance.

“We’ve been around it for a long enough time that the kids that we know that are cutting (weight) and stuff, we’ll try to talk to them one on one,” Heater said. “Kind of suggest to them and give them an idea of what they should be doing and how they should be doing it.”

On target

Rifle is an obscure sport to many people, but that doesn’t exclude it from the covid conversation.

Rifle teams are taking an abundance of caution with the pandemic by planning to go virtual with matches.

Teams will exchange and compare match targets from their home ranges, with coaches signing and dating them.

“If matches are within a close number of points, the coaches will meet and review the targets together,” said Matt Rodrigues, the WPIAL rifle chairperson who coaches the sport at Woodland Hills. “We feel that this very flexible approach to our sport will provide the greatest degree of safety for our students and our coaches and their families.”

Rodrigues said protocols are being discussed for the WPIAL finals next month.

“Our motto for the year is improvise, adapt and overcome,” he said.

Team effort

Cooperation between schools has been critical during the pandemic, going back to the canceled spring season when this life-altering ordeal began.

Even though the state has allowed individual schools to make their own decisions regarding closures, protocols, etc., one school doesn’t have all of the answers.

Putting their heads together has made school officials more comfortable in dealing with the ever-changing landscape.

“I can’t overstate how much we as athletic directors have relied on one another during this time,” Franklin Regional athletic director Zach Kessler said. “We continually bounce ideas off of one another and try to share best practices. Their support and friendship has been invaluable.”

Trainers, nurses and other officials have cross-pollinated ideas as well.

Support from outside sources also plays a valuable role for the athletes.

Burrell athletic director Drake D’Angelo said that he surveyed several other athletic directors to see how they were handling things in order to be on the same page. Plum AD Josh Shoop has done something similar as he is hoping to give opponents a heads up in case their approaches don’t line up and either team needs to find a new opponent.

Head games

Latrobe boys basketball coach Brad Wetzel said physically not being able to play is one thing, but concern can extend to the mental side for the athletes.

“The psychological toll of a student-athlete being denied the ability to play a sport they dedicated so much of their life to,” Wetzel said, “gets lost sometimes in the conversation.”

Latrobe had fall basketball workouts, but the team was confined to the same gym. No other teams were permitted to use that facility.

A season in any form could go a long way in providing athletes some normalcy, in enclosed but safeguarded spaces.

“I just want the student-athletes to be able to have a season,” Boring said. “That would be the first success for me. Everything after that will be icing on the cake for us in this current situation.”

Coaches can only say so much to their athletes. The following of rules and regulations meant to keep them safe — before, during and after events — is ultimately up to them.

“It’s all about sacrifice,” DeAugustine said. “Is each individual kid willing to sacrifice for the good of the whole (team)? Time will tell, but wrestlers are used to sacrificing, so I am looking forward to having a season.”

More High School Basketball

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