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Local officials react differently to football, volleyball delay

Saranac Lake’s Jeff LaVair is dragged down by a Saranac Central defender after catching a pass in a home game at Wilson-Raymond Field in September 2019. That field, as well as others across New York state, will be empty this fall as the high school football season was delayed until March 1, 2021. (Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)

If fall sports seasons do end up taking place in high school athletics across New York state in this year of the coronavirus pandemic, three of those sports were just taken off the table.

In a decision announced Wednesday by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, seasons for the higher-risk sports of football, volleyball and competitive cheerleading were pushed back until March 1, 2021.

A combination of factors played a role in the decision. Tupper Lake Central School District Superintendent Russ Bartlett, who also is NYSPHSAA’s first vice president, said a big reason the three sports were delayed was that the organization, which governs the 11 athletic sections across the state, is hoping to save some type of season for high school student-athletes.

As it currently stands, sports listed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office as lower-risk include soccer, cross country and swimming. They will be able to start practicing Sept. 21 with competition to follow. Football and volleyball had been permitted to hold practices beginning on Sept. 21 but were not allowed to compete until further notice. Now that is pushed back six months.

“The state officials above us determined football and volleyball as high risk, and I think some districts really had concerns about trying to manage those sports along with other ones that are considered lower risk,” Bartlett said. “I think by taking those sports out of the picture, districts might feel more comfortable moving forward with those deemed safer.

Red Storm senior Sydney Andronica, who was named the Champlain Valley Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, digs out a ball during a match against rival Lake Placid a season ago. Also pictured for the Red Storm are Mia Sanford, left, and Meagan O’Brien. Like football, high school volleyball has been pushed back from a fall season to March 2021. (Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)

“Three of the five biggest sections across New York have already pulled the plug on all fall sports, and others looked like they might have followed in line,” Bartlett said. “Now, with football and volleyball taken out of the equation, other sports might have a chance to continue. We didn’t have a say in what constituted a high-risk or lower-risk sport.”

Eric Bennett, the director of athletics for the Saranac Lake Central School District and the Red Storm’s head varsity football coach, said he was dismayed at the decision on many fronts. Bennett said earlier on Wednesday, athletic directors from across New York were involved in a virtual meeting with NYSPHSAA during which protocols for moving ahead with competitive fall seasons were discussed. He said the meeting lasted about an hour, and that at no time was delaying football and volleyball mentioned.

“We just had a meeting,” Bennett said. “There were no politics discussed, it was about what are the protocols to return to play. And then eight hours later to get a release from NYSPHSAA saying there would be no fall football, no volleyball, that was a shock. It was frustrating and disappointing in so far as it seems like the decision had already been made while were talking about how to move forward.”

Bennett also said he’s not happy that Section VII, which is made up of small schools and is part of the the North Country region where COVID-19 infection rates are relatively low, is being lumped in with the rest of the state.

“The most frustrating part on my end, as AD and as a coach, is we want kids to be safe, we want to do things the right way, but it shouldn’t be a one-sized model,” Bennett said. “At the end of the day with decisions based on science and using data, if infection rates are favorable, the state should let each section have their own autonomy.”

In addition, starting a football season on March 1 in the North Country could be extremely difficult due to the weather.

“Other sections like those in the NYC metro area, the Capital Region, they can do football down there in the spring,” Bennett said. “How can you do that up here when there might be 3 feet of snow on the ground?”

Despite the setback, Bennett said when 2021 rolls around, he hopes Saranac Lake will be able to move ahead with playing football in the spring.

“We will try to do anything we can to give our kids a shot at some type of season,” he said. “We have a few athletes who are really looking to go play somewhere after high school, and we’ve got seniors who will never play another down after high school. We don’t want that taken away from them, and we’ll give it our best shot.”

Tupper Lake has been playing eight-man football the past three seasons, and Lumberjacks head coach Dennis Klossner said he hopes student-athletes will be able to participate in the sport come springtime. Klossner said he spoke to some of his players Thursday regarding delaying the season.

“I think they are fine with it. They understand,” Klossner said. “I think some of the kids will get into cross country to stay in shape, and hopefully, we’ll be able to start getting into to the weight room at some time and start conditioning. The tough part could be with sports overlapping. We don’t want kids to have to make a choice between this sport or that sport.

“Right now, we’re taking it day by day, and really, the priority is getting the kids into their schooling and seeing that they are safe, and that’s what we are doing,” Klossner added. “When spring comes, we’ll be excited about football. We want to have a season, whatever it may look like. We want to play.”

Mike Navarra, who has led Saranac Lake’s volleyball team to three straight Section VII, Class C titles as head coach, said delaying the season may not be all bad. In fact, Navarra said the pandemic itself has created new ways of looking at education, which includes physical activity.

“I think this is really an ideal time to reinvent what school is all about,” Navarra said. “I’d like to see the kids get out and be active. If you can’t travel, if you can’t play other schools, why not have intramural sports within your school?

“At this point, I plan on being there for a spring season if that’s what happens, and I know we will have kids come out,” Navarra added. “When you establish a championship caliber team, you’re not too concerned about athletes showing up. It will be a group that loves volleyball, and in the end, especially now, it’s not really about winning and losing. It’s all about what is best for the kids.”

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