Masks on for tip off.
The Colorado High School Activities Association is set to begin a new high school basketball season with practices to begin Jan. 18 and games to follow beginning Jan. 25.
Varsity teams will schedule 14 games to be played across seven weeks during the delayed and shortened season that will play through the COVID-19 pandemic.
And when teams take the court, masks will have to be on the faces of players.
“It is one of the new things that we are going to have to practice and learn how to handle,” Durango High School girls basketball coach Tim Fitzpatrick said. “My No. 1 goal is to be able to give the kids an opportunity to at least compete. There will be nuances none of us are used to, and wearing masks while playing is one of those. What will that look like? What are pregames and halftimes going to look like when we’re sitting on benches and not in locker rooms? But for a lot of these kids, it has been almost a year since they last competed in a sport. A lot may change, but I’m glad they get a chance to play.”
State tournament brackets will also be reduced this year across all classifications. Twenty-four teams will make the postseason for Classes 1A-3A, which is down from 36, while 32-team brackets will be played in Classes 4A-5A, which is reduced from the normal 48. There will be no consolation games at state this year.
Team must complete a minimum of seven games to be eligible for the postseason, and league champions will automatically qualify.
For smaller schools that will put extra emphasis on becoming league champion.
“The format is what it is,” Ignacio boys coach Chris Valdez said. “For us, it will be tough. Mancos is a good team in our league that only lost a couple of kids, and we lost three starters. Getting in shape and having guys step up in place of the guys we lost is going to be critical.”
Basketball was the first sport to feel the impact of the coronavirus last March, as state tournaments were canceled after quarterfinal games had been completed. No state champions were crowned in Colorado in 2020.
CHSAA was able to hand trophies to fall sports champions to end the year after it had canceled all of spring activities. The hope is 2021 winter athletes will be able to compete for titles if the seasons can move forward in a relatively safe manner.
But indoor sports are a big unknown, which has already led to a further postponement of Season B by CHSAA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Seasons were set to begin Jan. 4 before being pushed back to the first week of February. But CHSAA was able to secure a variance to allow basketball, girls swimming, hockey and wrestling to begin a week sooner than that February date.
Part of that variance will require basketball players to wear masks on and off the court.
“I am doing fine with it, but a lot of guys are struggling with it during open gym,” Bayfield senior Crosby Edwards said. “It is harder. You get tired a lot faster and you can run up and down a lot less. It’s draining. But I know, at least for me, I am going to do whatever it takes to play basketball this year.”
Many parents, coaches and athletes across the state were befuddled by CHSAA’s announcement that basketball players must wear masks on the court, while wrestlers will not be required to wear masks during their own greatly reconfigured season.
CHSAA explained to district administrators it is because basketball players will come in contact with numerous players from opposing teams throughout a game while wrestlers, which will not compete in any meets larger than four schools this year, will come in contact with only one athlete at a time.
“As a teacher, it’s hard to tell a kid to put up a mask every day. It’s a hot mess,” DHS boys coach Alan Batiste said. “As a coach, it is something I will have to stay on top of. I’m going to be strict about it every day in practice.”
Many have argued that neighboring states such as Nebraska and Wyoming, have already begun basketball seasons without requiring masks. Also in Colorado, NCAA Division II colleges in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference have played since the first week of December without masks. However, every men’s basketball team in the 15-team conference has had to postpone games for its own coronavirus issues. At Fort Lewis College in Durango, the women’s team has had to enter quarantine twice.
The types of masks worn by teams across the state will vary wildly, as CHSAA has no mandate on which type of mask must be used.
Ignacio has ordered masks with the team’s mascot. Durango High School has opted to order thousands of disposable masks that can be replaced frequently throughout the games. Montezuma-Cortez has ordered school-themed neck gaiters that can be pulled over a player’s face.
“They are thinner, more athletic ones,” M-CHS athletic director David Robinson said. “During open gyms, we’ve found that once the masks get wet, the players don’t want them on their face. The thick cloth ones are also way too thick for athletes to run around and breathe in. So, we tried to find a different option. One nice thing is that CHSAA is not requiring all the masks to be the same color or type. If a kid feels good with a disposable one, great. If a kid has another one they like, that’s great, too.”
CHSAA hopes referees, who also will be required to wear masks, won’t have to police players and has asked district administrators to be in charge of mask compliance. But area coaches know much of it will fall on the referees. The local referee association has indicated to coaches that if they have to ask a player three times to put their mask up that they could remove the player from the game.
Valdez knows some schools and areas in the state won’t adhere as strictly to the mask policy as local schools in Southwest Colorado.
“It’s supposed to be the administrators, but the refs aren’t going to have a choice but to be the police,” Valdez said. “I guarantee when we go play that first game at Sanford, those kids are going to have their masks around their ankles and nobody will care because they’re so mad about this whole thing. They just want to play. I just don’t think there’s going to be a lot of policing of that. We are on top of it in Ignacio, but I think some places are just tired of it and don’t care if they get (coronavirus) or not. I don’t think some places will enforce it.”
Teams that play press defense and a fast-paced game rather than half-court sets will likely find the masks to be a larger nuisance. Ignacio falls into that category and also doesn’t have as deep of a bench full of substitutes as many larger schools.
“Even just running and doing plyometrics with the kids, it’s almost impossible to run and play and wear a mask. It’s really hard,” Valdez said.
CHSAA had flirted with the idea of taking a mask timeout in each quarter to allow kids, while socially distanced on the court, to remove their masks and catch their breath. But that idea was shot down.
“More than anything, we are going to have to find ways to get little breaks,” said Durango junior guard Anthony Flint. “Using timeouts and getting little breaks to breathe is going to be important this year. If we’re playing a high-pace game and there are a couple of missed shots in a row and no out of bounds to stop the clock, we are going to be constantly running. That’s going to be the hardest part of playing with masks.”
DHS plans to put a sanitation stand at the scorer’s table where players check in and out of the game. Players will use hand sanitizer before they check into a game and before they return to their designated area of the bench.
Most schools also will not allow fans, including parents, into games this year. Mancos is considering the idea of allowing two family members per player into games. Robinson said Cortez will not allow any fans. Bayfield, Durango and Ignacio also will not have fans indoors under current guidelines.
As of now, only 50 people are allowed inside a gymnasium at one time under the CHSAA variance approved by the CDPHE. Schools are reserving those extra spots for junior varsity teams who also travel to play on the same day.
“At this time, we are capped at that number and it becomes an issue of figuring out what to do with the teams waiting to play games or there after their game is completed,” Robinson said. “It doesn’t feel right sticking junior varsity kids or the girls team on a bus outside while the varsity boys team plays. Our stands will be utilized for those players at this point. We are figuring out ways to hopefully televise games in multiple ways, from local TV stations to Facebook live. We will try as many ways as we can for people to be able to watch the games.”