Alex Brasky/Batavia Daily News Low-risk fall sports returned to the practice field on Monday.

There’s no denying that high school sports are going to look a lot different this year.

Through five stops at area high schools this week, the most noticeable change was the masks that each athlete is now required to wear, but there were a few things I noticed had not changed since I last visited a practice six months ago.

Large group sessions, team water breaks, and even high-fiving have all gone by the wayside. But a few things that I noticed that had not disappeared from high school fields were the smiles, the laughter, and the overall joy exuding from young student-athletes who, after months of dormancy, appear as excited as ever to be back.

ALL INVOLVED COMPLYING WITH GUIDELINES

From athletes to coaches to athletic directors, all parties involved have done an excellent job, at least from what I’ve seen, complying with the new guidelines that have been brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It certainly hasn’t been easy for athletes, especially those on the soccer field, required to run around while wearing face masks. However, based on my five stops this past week, teams seem to be making due and making the best of an awkward and, at times, difficult situation.

“We were really clear with our guidelines right up front, and we’ve gotten a great response from our athletes and our community as well,” said Alexander athletic director and girls soccer coach Rob Adams. “We know what we have to do to keep this season rolling and moving forward, and we’re going to do our part.”

Part of the motivation to do so is that many athletes feel fortunate to be back out on the field, enjoying the sport they love.

“It’s definitely great to be out here considering other sports can’t,” said Oakfield-Alabama/Elba girls soccer junior Kelsey Schlagenhauf. “The fact that we get the opportunity to play is great, and we’re pretty excited to start playing other teams.”

If my five stops this week were any sign of how things are going throughout Section V, it seems as if completing the fall sports season is feasible.

FACE MASKS ARE DOABLE

There has been plenty of confusion about whether soccer players must wear masks during practices or games. Cross-country athletes, due to the natural social distancing aspect of the sport, will not be required to wear masks while competing, but when it comes to soccer, a sport with much more close contact, whether athletes must wear masks seems to be up in the air.

When asked for clarification on this issue, New York State Public High School Athletic Association Executive Director Robert Zayas cited the guidance that the New York State Department of Health provided NYSPHSAA.

“If you can’t maintain six feet (of social distance), you have to wear a mask unless a student-athlete cannot tolerate it during physical activity,” Zayas said.

That leaves plenty of wiggle room and little explanation as to what exactly we should expect once the games begin in a few weeks.

With that said, regardless of whether athletes must wear masks while on the soccer field, I believe that, if required to do so, that’s something that will be very doable for most student-athletes. From my experience at practices this week, what I saw was a vast majority of student-athletes ready to, as Alexander’s Adams said, do their part to complete the fall season uninterrupted, whether that means masks or no masks.

“We’ve definitely been trying to encourage each other. We know its harder for everyone with the masks on and whatever,” said Alexander girls soccer junior Natalie Whitmore. “But we’re just really grateful for the season, and we’re all just trying to pick each other up and do what we can to make sure this season will be a great one.”

Speaking with O-A/E girls soccer coach Dave Carpino during one of my stops this week, he brought up a good point.

Sometimes, when life presents difficult situations, younger people can better handle a significant change or suddenly challenging circumstances than adults. I think that’s what we’ve seen with the restart of high school sports, as young athletes are setting a great example as far as adjusting and doing what they have to do to move forward.

NUMBERS ARE UP

There have been few positives to go with the many negatives that have come with the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic - no more significant negative than the elimination of high-risk sports from the fall season.

The postponement of football, volleyball, and other sports have forced many athletes to wait until the spring to play their chosen sport, but many of those athletes have taken things in stride. Many whose seasons got pushed back have signed up to play other sports - in some cases, sports they haven’t played since middle school or earlier.

“We definitely feel for those kids who lost out on their sport this fall, and we’re hoping we can give that to them later on,” said Adams. “But we’ve also seen a lot of kids come out for a sport that they haven’t played since modified or seventh grade. So they’ve taken advantage of the situation. Instead of looking at it as a negative, they’ve turned it into a positive.”

The absence of high-risk sports is indeed glaring, especially as we begin to enter the brisker, more fall-feeling days of September and October. At the same time, it’s nice to see other sports take center stage for a change as what is sure to be an exciting season kicks off.

LET FOOTBALL, VOLLEYBALL, OTHER SPORTS PLAY

Speaking of kickoff, based upon what I’ve seen at practices this week, there is no valid reason that other sports, such as football and volleyball, can’t be participating right now.

During my time at soccer practices this week, what I’ve seen have been sessions filled with small group drills with limited contact, all while athletes wear masks while within close contact with one another.

I can’t understand why those tasked with deciding which sports won’t be played this fall believe that those same small group drills with limited contact can’t be carried out on the football practice field or the volleyball court.

Volleyball is a sport in New York held inside a gymnasium, which would create added concerns regarding the virus’s spread. But I’m sure these coaches and players would be more than willing to take their practices outside, at least for the time being.

I can only imagine what it’s like for these players, coaches, and parents. To see football being played on TV four days a week, while also hearing about other high school organizations in nearby states that have begun their high school football and volleyball seasons - some against the wishes of their state government.

My opinion is not one regarding the legitimacy of the virus or the danger it presents. Instead, I believe that, while limiting the virus’s spread, what’s happening on the soccer field could also be happening in other sports like football and volleyball. Put teams into small groups during practice, have them wear masks, socially distance athletes and coaches on the sidelines, and let them play.

—Alex Brasky is a reporter/columnist for the Batavia Daily News. He can be reached by email at abrasky@batavianews.com.

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