Limited offseason workouts impacts winter sports coaches, athletes

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Saturday, January 9, 2021 | 6:00 AM


The winter sports offseason is when players and teams can use their extra time to improve for the following season. They get together, play in fall leagues, hold open gyms and attend summer team camps in order to become more of a team.

The time is important as players learn their roles, coaches see their new players for the first time and teammates have the opportunity to bond.

That wasn’t the case this summer as the pandemic shut down just about every type of offseason work that teams could do at one time or another.

Some teams were still able to get together and practice, but most teams lost out on everything.

“I love seeing them in the summertime too,” Fox Chapel boys basketball coach Zach Skrinjar said. “We didn’t get to do our camp, and they missed working with the younger kids, but it’s also more relaxed in the summer and you get to have more interaction with them in a fun way. We missed going to team camp, which is something I look forward to as a coach, and I know my coaches look forward to it and the players look forward to it as well because it’s just different. It’s less business-like.”

When teams lose big classes of seniors, the offseason is also a time where coaches can evaluate younger talent. Freeport girls basketball coach Fred Soilis has one of the biggest freshmen classes he’s had but didn’t have much time to watch them play and interact with the older players in the offseason.

“I thought we got some good first-level work done, stuff that we needed to do,” Soilis said. “But then we got shut back down until we started getting together again in September with girls who weren’t playing a fall sport and we had a good turnout.”

The limited time together in the offseason might also even out the playing field this season.

Springdale boys basketball coach Aaron Epps and the Dynamos are bringing back their top six players from last season, but with the lack of time together in the offseason, they might be on the same level as some other teams because they didn’t get the extra time they normally get.

While they might’ve been able to gain the upper hand in a normal offseason, building on the familiarity they developed during the previous year, the Dynamos now will be on somewhat of the same timeline as everyone else, maybe even behind in some cases.

“From the day we lost to Winchester (Thurston in the WPIAL Class 2A quarterfinals) to our first day of practice, we didn’t play together once, not once, not summer league, fall ball, and to me, that’s a little bit of a disadvantage,” Epps said. “You’re behind, and to me, it gives some of the teams who aren’t as talented a chance to beat you. I mean I’m happy, I’d rather have everyone back, but when the ball goes up, everyone is equal.”

With the lack of time together in the offseason, coaches have had to trust their players to have the self-motivation to work out and improve. Normally, coaches have a good idea of how much work their players put in throughout the summer by seeing them once or twice a week.

This season is not like most seasons, though, and Plum boys basketball coach Mark Marino believes most teams’ seasons will depend on how much work the student-athletes put in on their own time, especially during the most recent “pause” of high school athletics.

“I really think our year, and pretty much everybody else’s year, is going to be based on, did your kids, and are they continuing to, have that inner motivation to get out on their own and find a gym to work on their game, individually, or with a buddy or two,” Marino said. “I think that’s going to be so crucial.”

At times during this offseason, and the most recent pause, coaches have been able to meet with their teams through virtual Zoom calls and other means, but those types of meetings can only do so much.

Epps said he gave his players workouts to do over the course of the offseason, but whether the players completed them or not was up to them.

“I think some of our guys worked, and I think some of them didn’t, and I can tell by the first practice,” Epps said. “Players have had to have self-motivation to do it on their own.”

For most athletes, getting ready for the season and staying in shape during the three-week shutdown wasn’t a problem as they want to stay prepared and build for their future.

“I had to go in my driveway and do ball-handling drills and get shots up,” Fox Chapel basketball player Eli Yofan said. “It was definitely tough, but it was motivation too because I knew there were other guys out there like me who want to play college basketball that were out there doing the same thing.”

Since he was young, Burrell senior Ian Oswalt has been chasing after a PIAA individual wrestling title. He said there was no chance he was going let his work ethic slip because of covid.

“When you come so close and then you fall short, it was definitely a heartbreaking moment, but it was also something I felt like I needed to get going and push myself more,” Oswalt said. “I just wanted to try and improve and get better so when the time comes this year I’m ready for it.”

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at gmacafee@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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