The last time Natalie Scott heard the sound of squeaking shoes and bouncing basketballs from her Copenhagen team was last February.
So, she was ecstatic to see her team participate in Monday’s first day of winter high-risk practices.
With permission from Lewis County Public Health, the superintendents from the four Lewis County Frontier League schools along with Harrisville devised a plan for winter high-risk sports.
Basketball has a schedule in place — the five teams will play each other twice for a total of eight games — volleyball is expected to play six matches and wrestling is working out the details of its season this week.
Similar to the fall, the Lewis County schools will be allowed only to play each other. This cuts down on travel and eliminates the possibility of students from outside counties traveling to Lewis County for athletics.
The only difference is that the winter season will include Harrisville, a Lewis County school that typically participates in Section 10.
Nate Schmitt, a senior for Harrisville, wasn’t convinced that a season would even happen. Granted, the optics looked slim prior to the New York Department of Health’s surprise authorization on Jan. 22.
“It was great, you could definitely tell that everyone’s spirits were really lifted,” Schmitt said. “Everyone was down because they all wanted basketball, we’re a really big basketball school. But as soon as practice kind of started, you could tell that everyone was super happy, it was a burst of energy.”
The Pirates are only two years removed from winning a state championship, a team Schmitt started on alongside his older brother Peyton.
Harrisville participating in the Frontier League, albeit a reduced version of itself, is a change of pace but not completely unfamiliar territory. The Pirates played Copenhagen and Beaver River last season and have played Lowville in the past.
“I think with what some of these teams have coming back, obviously, you don’t get any better than Lowville,” Harrisville coach Brian Coloney said. “Beaver River has some nice pieces coming back with the (Sam) Bush kid and the (Lincoln) Becker kid. Copenhagen had a real nice team last year. We played all these teams in the past couple of years, we played Lowville two years ago. We played Beaver River and Copenhagen last year. The unknown is South Lewis, they always have great athletes there and usually have some decent size. I don’ think there will be any easy games.”
There’s potential for multiple intense games and matches within all of the high-risk winter sports in Lewis County. However, with no playoffs and a fraction of regular season games, the purpose of the 2020-21 season is simply giving the student-athletes a shot at playing again.
“The deal this year isn’t to win a championship or anything like that,” Scott said. “It’s to keep us out there, have the most fun and get the most out of it.”
“They’ve been cooped up so long, I think that’s the main thing,” Coloney said. “Get them out, play and maybe enjoy themselves a little bit.”
The COVID-19 precautions put in place won’t change the product on the court, with the exception of masks — which players, coaches and any other essential person in attendance are required to wear at all times.
Spectators will be absent from any sporting events.
Practices, though, have been altered. Social-distancing, the best a team can, is encouraged, and sanitation is constant.
“There’s a lot of ball washing, handwashing and using hand sanitizer,” Beaver River volleyball coach Gene Sundberg said. “My hands are dry from using so much of it.”
Lewis County athletes aren’t strangers to having to wear masks during contests. Those who played fall low- and moderate-risk sports were required to wear masks the entire game.
However, wearing masks indoors has a slightly different feel to it. It took some getting used to for most players.
“Super-excited and a little bit of unknown,” South Lewis girls basketball coach Dave Martin said. “With masks on ... having to have a mask on your face all the time, just a little bit of having to get used to it. But absolute excitement when they heard the announcement that they would be able to play.”
While Harrisville is participating with the Frontier League, the rest of the Section 10 schools remain on pause by order of the section. Coloney understands that decision given how the pandemic has recently affected St. Lawrence and Franklin counties.
“I’m kind of leery myself,” Coloney said. “But I kind of left it up to the kids and the community. If there was more of a push-back on it, I think we wouldn’t be doing this. But we’re fully back and supported.”
With that said, Coloney is taking the required precautions seriously.
“I would just hate to have something bad happen because of an infection rate,” Coloney said. “But we’re going by the book, by what the Frontier League wants and Lewis County as far as how many people we have on the bench and the masking and the disinfecting.”
Widrick hopes that with the return of high-risk winter sports after a long hiatus comes with new sense of appreciation.
“I’m like a kid at Christmas with this sport,” Lowville wrestling coach Joe Widrick said. “I do hope people will look at things and appreciate them differently when this is over.”
SANDY CREEK READY TO PLAY
Add Sandy Creek to the list of Frontier League schools that are prepared to play high-risk winter sports this month.
Sandy Creek started practices for its varsity basketball, cheer and volleyball teams on Tuesday. Comets athletic director, Mike Stevens, said that no games have been scheduled due to the complexities of county guidelines as a Frontier League school located in Oswego County. He was hopeful of scheduling games against nearby teams from each Oswego and Jefferson counties.
Jefferson County schools Watertown, Indian River, Immaculate Heart Central, South Jefferson and Sackets Harbor have announced plans to proceed with high-risk winter sports.
Sandy Creek competes in the Frontier League but has yet to begin wrestling practice based on a recommendation from the Oswego County Department of Health.
Times sportswriter Josh St.Croix contributed to this report.