Can high school basketball box out a pandemic?

More than 10 months since state championship games were the first COVID-19 sports casualties, basketball returns next week

Timber Creek Regional High School coach Rich Bolds, who guided his team to a sectional title before COVID-19 wiped out state championship games, talks to his team during a break in action. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Next week, and for the first time in over 10 months, the familiar sound of basketballs hitting the hardwood and bouncing off backboards and rims will return to high schools.

Following a brief holiday respite between seasons, New Jersey will welcome the winter scholastic season into 2021, as basketball, bowling and fencing begin competition on Jan. 26. Other traditional sports, like swimming and track (mid-February) and wrestling (mid-March) remain on hold.

But boys and girls basketball — arguably two of the sports hit hardest when the pandemic prevented state championships less than a week before they were to take place — are back.

“I think about it a lot,” Timber Creek Regional High School boys basketball coach Rich Bolds said of the heartbreaking end to the Chargers’ season, one he believed would end with a state title and a potential rematch with Camden in the Tournament of Champions.

“But God and the universe had other plans,” he added.

Following a somewhat tumultuous fall season, basketball coaches and administrators are hopeful but also realistic as COVID cases are once again on the rise.

“I think it’s going to be uncertain,” said Paul VI High School girls coach Lisa Steele. “The vaccines are rolling out, but they’re not rolling out as quickly,  and with the tiered approach, a lot of people in basketball aren’t on that list to be vaccinated.

“I’ve prepared for it,” she said. “We have our 15-game schedule. But I also have friends all throughout the state … We’re all kind of on call in case we have cancellations.”

Steele, a former star player at Highland Regional, was a bit more prepared for what to expect than most. She studied epidemiology and biostatistics after gaining her bachelor’s degree at George Washington University. Her mother is a nurse and her sister works in molecular biology.

But, like every coach and administrator, Steele also knows it’s going to take a group effort.

“When we had a virtual contact period, I went over everything with my team as far as education on how to keep ourselves safe so we don’t get exposed off the court,” she said. “And it’s getting buy-in from the families, (too). Because you could go home and have somebody (exposed). I’ve had conversations with all of my girls and they’re even saying (that) with their families who work, that they’re either wearing masks at home or kind of staying apart in the house.

“It’s nice, because they’re making that commitment and we are having these honest conversations.”

Players from Cherokee and Paul VI take a break during an Olympic Conference game last February. The Chiefs and Eagles are among the state’s best teams (the two are set to square off on Feb. 4) but the beginning of the season is being overshadowed by uncertainties that remain due to COVID-19. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Basketball families are already making a big sacrifice: They aren’t allowed in the gym this year. Per state rules, only student athletes, coaches and officials are permitted inside.

Many school officials have planned for that, though, with innovation: Paul VI and both Cherry Hill schools are among those that will livestream all of their games for free online. 

If there is a model for success in high school sports amid a pandemic, it might be the Cherry Hill district. According to Mike Beirao, the school district’s director of athletics, only one regular-season game was canceled this fall in all sports at both high schools and all district middle schools.

“All because the kids and the coaches believed in (the process),” Beirao said. “A lot of our coaches coach in the fall. We’re now into the winter and kids are moving into winter sports, and they understand what has to be done to be successful.

“Our coaches are really strict,” he added. “We have our athletic trainer greet the kids right at the door; we do checks … We do a rigorous screening process before they get here. And if they believe in the screening process, then that is our best tool to help extend our seasons by preventing people that don’t feel well or have symptoms from coming to practice. 

“The screening tool, we are religious about it. It seems to have done a really good job in the fall and we’re hoping that we can get the same level of commitment.”

But Cherry Hill’s schools may have been the exception. 

At Lenape, the football program twice had to enter a two-week quarantine period. At Delran, the boys soccer team played just four games. Washington Township’s football team also only played four games and Clearview football played just three. In late October, a field hockey game at Cinnaminson was canceled in the middle of the match, after officials learned the team may have been exposed in a game four days earlier. And in November, a sectional championship field hockey game between Clearview and Moorestown was canceled 24 hours before the teams were set to square off.

Shawnee High School’s Nia Scott goes skyward with Eastern’s Mia Robbins at tipoff in a game last winter. Due to COVID restrictions, there won’t be any jump balls in the abbreviated 2021 season. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

The winter season could prove to be more difficult, since the competition takes place indoors. And that’s also ignoring what athletes are doing when they’re not in school, at practices or playing in games.

“I don’t know if they all take it as seriously as they should,” Bolds said of high school students. “They hang out and do things of that nature. It’s hard for them to stay at home, it’s hard for them to stay disciplined and not be around people and do the things that put them at risk.

“It’s going to be very important for parents to encourage their kids not to do certain things during the season,” he added, “and it’s going to be very important for the kids to be disciplined enough not to do it.”

Basketball itself will also look different: There are no jump balls to begin the game (replaced by a coin toss) and referees have been instructed to steer clear of touching the ball. High fives are also discouraged.

But the game is back, at least, and coaches are trying to appreciate the small things that come with it.

“I’m a competitive person and I feel like our players are competitive,” Clearview girls coach Casey Heitman said. “You want to be the best team, you want to win the conference. But this year is different. Who knows what that’s even going to look like or how many games we’re going to play? I think we just have to be grateful that we’re in the court again, together.”

“I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed that we get all of the games in,” added Bolds. “Hopefully we can do it.”

One top program has already decided against playing: Moorestown Friends girls basketball, the reigning South Jersey Invitational Basketball Tournament Champions, will hold practices but won’t play games this season.

Another sign of something you won’t see this season: fans at games. Last February, Camden Catholic students do their best to use home court advantage and rattle a Paul VI free throw shooter. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)