Last week marked the start of a vastly different winter sports season for the athletes of the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District. Tryouts for basketball, wrestling, kickline and cheerleading began on Feb. 3, and the teams were quick to start practicing.
School administrators worked at a rapid pace to plan the season once county health officials approved Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s guidelines. Each sport will have a limited season, with either fewer or no competitive events. The district is requiring that athletes wear masks during practice and play and undergo weekly Covid-19 testing, which is being offered to student athletes through a third-party health care provider at the Brookside School (see box, Page 3).
Despite the stipulations, a number of coaches said, athletes were eager to get to work on a season that was up in the air only a month ago.
“We were not expecting to have any kind of season at all,” John F. Kennedy High School wrestling coach Brian DeGaetano said. “All of a sudden it was, ‘OK, you can play starting next week.’ It was a mad scramble — things that normally would take me a month to do, I had to do in four days.”
“They’ve been waiting for this — and they’re super-excited,” Wellington C. Mepham girls’ basketball coach Jim Mulvey said.
Here is a glimpse of how each sport will be handled.
Kennedy athletes will hit the mat while masked up, but in shorter bouts for this season. Practices that were normally two hours have been reduced to 80 minutes, and there will only be eight matches this season.
For practices, wrestlers are divided into two groups of 20 that cycle between three training stations that focus on strength, cardio and wrestling skills. While three or four players were normally grouped together before, DeGaetano said, athletes are now paired in twos — the same partners will practice together all season.
The goal is to make it through the eight matches undefeated, but “it’s not so much about winning or losing,” DeGaetano said. “We’re going to try to make it through the season — that’s the number one goal. Just to have a season for one month, where the kids will hopefully quarantine, not go out on the weekends, live carefully and just dedicate themselves to wrestling and the team.”
Some of the students have been wrestlers since elementary school, bringing important “closure” to those who will soon graduate, DeGaetano said. His son, now a freshman in college, lost the opportunity to participate in a final season last year — “I’ve seen both sides,” he said.
For Kennedy’s cheerleading team, not much has changed in terms of routines and intensity in the sport, coach Linda Leonardo said.
“It’s more about being aware of where you are in the room,” she said. Team members are kept in small groups that are spaced apart during practice, and those who enter or exit the room must sanitize their hands.
“It doesn’t take away from the actual sport,” Leonardo said. “They got the hang of it after the first day.”
Like wrestling, cheerleading is a contact sport. Some routines like jumping or tumbling can be individually spread out, but other routines are close to their original form.
On the first day that the team was together, Leonardo was as excited as the athletes. “The first thing I said to them was, ‘I can’t believe we’re here. I’m so excited I could cry,” she said, “and they were all so giddy and happy. . . I’m really impressed with how resilient the kids have been.”
As the season kicked off, Leonardo was unsure of the specifics of any upcoming competitions.
The district’s intramural programs last year allowed Mepham’s girls’ basketball team to enter this season with a comfortable leg up, Mulvey said. “That prepared us to get into the mindset — the girls know what to do and how to be safe,” he said.
Once the athletes were back at school after a two-day delay caused by the recent nor’easter, they were ready to get started. Masks are required during practice and play, and the season is reduced to eight games.
For games hosted by Bellmore-Merrick, the district is allowing two family members per player, with no visiting players’ guests or fans allowed, Mulvey said. On the court, the teams’ warm-up equipment will be kept separate, and the game ball will be sanitized before starting.
“They’re just excited to be out there,” Mulvey said. “We’re bringing back a lot of kids that have been waiting and waiting for this. It’s hard to see the smiles under the masks, but they’re there.”
The first game of the season against New Hyde Park Memorial High School is set for Feb. 10 at Mepham.
“We’re going to go out and try to win every game,” Mulvey said, “but we’re realistic in that this is more about the bond and getting these seniors out there and recognized. We’re appreciative to have any sort of season.”
This year, all in-person competitions for the Mepham kickline team are canceled — a disappointing reality for the group who won their first championship title last year at the National Dance Alliance Nationals in Orlando, Fla.
While the competition is still being hosted in April, the team will not make the trip this year. Squad members would normally attend in March, coach Kerry Dennis said.
“It’ll be a very different season for our team not having that competitive aspect to it,” Dennis said, “but we are still planning to perform at football games, if football season goes off without a hitch.”
“Especially coming off of winning a national championship last year, and then not being able to go back, it’s definitely a tough pill to swallow,” Dennis noted.
During practice, girls are masked and carry out their two-minute choreographed routines in small groups. At all other times, they remain socially distant.
“Even if they don’t get to compete, or if the stands are empty when they perform, they’ll still do it with all of their heart and give it their all,” Dennis said, “because it means so much to them that they get the opportunity.”