New London football coach Johnny Burns is in the unique position of knowing what both sides are going through after the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s Board of Control announced Thursday its plans for winter sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Burns, the football coach, was devastated by the news that there would be no abbreviated season.
Burns, the father of Jayden Burns, a senior guard on the Whalers’ girls’ basketball team, is glad she gets to have a season — and hopeful that they’ll get through it.
“She’s looking forward to giving it her all,” Johnny Burns said. “I’m just praying and crossing my fingers that they’ll even get 10 games (in).”
Players and coaches from basketball, boys’ swimming, gymnastics and ice hockey were able to celebrate Thursday when it was officially announced that they will have a winter season. The Board approved teams to begin practice on Jan. 19 and start competing on Feb. 8.
“The way I’m looking at it,” Norwich Free Academy girls’ basketball coach Courtney Gomez said, “and I’ve talked to (NFA boys’ basketball) coach (Chris) Guisti about it, whatever we get, whether it’s a practice, or a game, one day or two days a week, the situation changing all the time (due to the pandemic) … just face the day in front of us, the situation in front of us, and be grateful for that moment.”
Montville boys’ basketball coach Tim Strong said, “I didn’t think we were going to play at all, to be frank with you, with the (COVID) numbers being so high now. … It’s still one of those things where seeing is believing. I’ll believe it when I see it at this point. Not to sound negative, but I wake up every day and don’t know what to expect.”
Those involved in competitive cheerleading/dance, football and wrestling, however, dealt with the finality of not having a season. Athletes in those sports may condition and work on skills in small groups, but that’s it.
“I wasn’t really surprised,” Waterford cheerleading coach Kirsten Maskell said. “It hurts. I know we have to keep kids safe and that’s the number one priority for all of us, but my heart breaks for my team, especially my seniors.
“We have some really talented seniors. They didn’t want this to be their last year. We had an extremely successful season last year (the Lancers were co-Class M champions with Wolcott), and they wanted to have one more successful season before moving on to college.”
Burns said, “I’m grieving with my program, with my seniors, over what should have been.”
Indoor track was also postponed, although the CIAC will reexamine allowing an abbreviated season outdoors in March, weather permitting.
The Eastern Connecticut Conference will only allow play within league and will hold league tournaments, which the CIAC said can be held from March 15-28.
Basketball teams may play up to 12 regular-season games.
The unique twist for winter sports is that all athletes, coaches and officials must wear masks at all times with the exception of when gymnasts and swimmers are competing.
“Playing with masks is going to be a whole different battle,” Gomez said.
It was going to be tough enough for players to get in shape because they haven’t been able to train as a team due to the pandemic. Adding masks provides another headache.
“They haven’t done anything sports-wise since October because Montville (fall sports) got shut down early (due to the pandemic),” Strong said. “I’m a conditioning coach myself, especially coaching (Ledyard boys) cross country. You’ll just have to do even more running, more push-ups, more calisthenics, and more stretching.
“I’ve talked to several coaches about it. A lot of (coaching) is now less strategic and giving kids some type of experience (to play).”
Gomez has talked to some of her fellow NFA coaches about how to coach through a pandemic. NFA had as rough a fall season as any ECC school because it shut down on the first day of the regular season and didn’t reopen until late October when the fall season was almost over.
“I spent a lot of time talking to (NFA head football) coach (Jason) Bakoulis and (offensive coordinator) coach (Stephen) Burris,” Gomez said. “Those guys have been really helpful to me because they went through the whirlwind of emotions with their season (being canceled). They basically said to me to take it one day at a time, provide an opportunity for them (to work and be together), work on your culture, and just focus on the present moment.
“Don’t worry about tomorrow or the day before. Just focus on the present moment.”
Competitive cheerleading/dance and wrestling coaches must figure out what to do with their athletes. It will certainly sting not being able to compete, but any time together will be welcomed, especially since some players don’t get to see their friends outside of sports because of hybrid learning.
“We’re normally one of the main teams (that get gym time),” Maskell said. “Now it’s totally flip-flopped. We’re going to have to use whatever (gym availability) is left over. Then I have to go and figure how many girls can I work with at one time. I’m going to have to take some time and figure out how to break them up into small groups of girls.
“There are still things we can do (physically). … For my seniors, it’s going to be a time to be with teammates for a couple of more months. For the long-term, this is going to be more about getting my underclassmen more prepared, more strong, and more physically prepared for next season.”
The Board of Control voted last September for an abbreviated football season that would begin with conditioning on Feb. 27 and a six-game schedule that would end on April 17.
The Board, however, had also set the dates for a winter season to run from Dec. 7-Feb. 21, including state tournaments.
In November, the Board postponed the start of the winter season to Jan. 19. The combination of that, and the recommendation from the Connecticut Department of Health against high-risk sports during the winter, put an end to football.
“The longer we got into January, and I’m hearing about basketball starting on (Jan. 19), wasn’t exactly making me feel that confident,” Burns said. “It doesn’t lessen the level of disappointment that this is where we are (during the pandemic) 10 months later.
“We had the players, the veterans, the talent, that we were looking to unleash (in 2020). When I think about the great teams in New London history, and I think about these kids would’ve had a tremendous opportunity to make a run towards being one of those historic teams in New London.
“For the rest of our lives, it’ll be the team that might have been and never got to know.”