By Tom Pedulla—
Local athletic administrators, coaches and student-athletes reacted with surprise but also delight when the path was cleared for high-risk high school sports to be played despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, facing mounting pressure to change his opposition, placed the decision in the hands of local authorities. Westchester County Executive George Latimer joined other Hudson Valley Executives in quickly following the lead of the vast majority of states by electing to allow sports such as basketball, hockey, volleyball and wrestling to proceed with a six-week season. Football will be among the sports played in the spring.
“The resumption of sports will be important for the continued development and mental well-being of our young people – we must never forget them in the decisions we make,” Latimer said.
Gina Maher, Irvington’s legendary girls’ basketball coach, hailed the move while emphasizing the need for everyone to adhere to strict protocols that will include masks. “It’s a great sign of hope,” she said. “It gives the kids hope.”
Educators have been increasingly concerned about the mental health of young people, some of whom readily admit that they have struggled with remote learning and the feeling that they lack structure during a time of world-wide anxiety.
Maher said of the resumption of high-risk sports: “It takes their mind off of what we’re going through. It gives them time to stop thinking about COVID and to think about something else, but also to realize that, in order to be able to do these things, you have to abide by the rules.”
New York had been one of three states to sideline winter sports. Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Vermont were among those already underway. The New York State Athletic Administrators Association, in a Jan. 14 letter to Gov. Cuomo, noted that “the rest of the country has celebrated successes.”
Michael Arias, in his first year as Sleepy Hollow’s athletic director, noted that pressure on Gov. Cuomo to change his position had steadily increased. “I would say there was a pretty big effort, not just by Sleepy Hollow parents but across the board in Section 1 to advocate for a return to high-risk sports,” Arias said.
Even the governor’s pandemic-long mantra that data and science must be followed pointed toward eliminating the ban on high-risk sports. According to New York State’s contact-tracing data for December, only one percent of COVID-19 infections were traced to sports. One high school student passed the infection to another in just 0.46 percent of cases while 74 percent of cases stemmed from the household.
The pandemic has served to reiterate the value of scholastic sports in helping teenagers through a formative period in their lives.
“I think it’s definitely been a strain on a lot of people because we’re used to the structure of going to school every day and playing a sport after school every day,” said Sleepy Hollow senior Zach Rudder, a member of the boys’ basketball team. “That’s kind of the routine and, without it, I’m sure a lot of kids were initially lost and not sure what to do. Getting back to some sort of normalcy is really going to help a lot of kids.”
Grace Thybulle, a senior center at Irvington, has followed a hybrid schedule that has her learning remotely three days a week. She said the arrangement “feels kind of funky” and added: “For student-athletes, having a team and having practices and having games is a really big deal as far as mental health. It keeps a lot of people grounded. I know it keeps me grounded.”
According to Thybulle, the absence of certain sports had a profound impact on those student-athletes who were affected. “It’s been really easy to lose sight of things that are important, in sports and in our lives in general,” she said.
Thybulle, one of the premier girls’ basketball players in Westchester, looks forward to competing for Yale next season. She is eager to use the upcoming schedule to continue to develop her game and her leadership skills. Other student-athletes who are pursuing college scholarships will be able to showcase their talents to college coaches.
Ben Good, a Sleepy Hollow senior, was doubly excited because he competes in basketball and football. He is optimistic he will be safe on the court and the gridiron. “I’m not too concerned. I believe we can keep ourselves safe and keep everyone safe if we do the things we’re told to do,” he said.
Chris Starace, his basketball coach, will be fully vaccinated once the season begins. “I’m really excited. First and foremost, this has been a really long 10 months for a lot of people. We all acknowledge that. Kids have suffered a lot,” Starace said. “If we can safely bring back some normalcy to their lives, I think it is something we had to pursue.”