Nassau County Executive Laura Curran will announce the guidelines for the return of high-risk winter high school sports in a Wednesday morning news conference in East Rockaway.
The county's health officials were putting the finishing touches on the guidance Tuesday. The announcement will clear the way for public and parochial schools in the county to begin practice and play Monday in the sports deemed high-risk for coronavirus infection by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration: boys and girls basketball, wrestling and competitive cheerleading.
Cuomo issued a directive on Friday afternoon putting the decisions to play those sports – which he had indefinitely postponed – in the hands of the state’s county health officials.
Section VIII, the governing body for public school sports in Nassau County, held a meeting of its Athletic Council and a meeting of athletic directors on Tuesday, but very few details of the guidance coming from health commissioner Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein were revealed. The same was true of a conference of Nassau school superintendents on Tuesday, however COVID-19 testing was a subject of discussion.
"Superintendents feel that having the resources to test, and conducting the testing, would be helpful in ensuring safety conducting the high-risk sports," Jericho superintendent Hank Grishman said.
Grishman added that with questions about testing still unanswered on Tuesday, some superintendents were looking to acquire extra tests for playing high-risk sports in their districts.
When Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced the county plan for high-risk sports on Monday, it included mandatory testing.
Once Nassau County school districts have the guidance, each will make a determination whether to compete in the high-risk winter sports or not and then inform Section VIII for the purposes of adjusting schedules. They could compete in some, but not in others.
Tom Combs, executive director of Section XI, the governing body for public school sports in Suffolk, said that Pierson High School has opted out of competing in all high-risk winter sports and added that some schools are still deciding about whether to field teams in wrestling.
In Nassau, Lawrence High – which had opted out of winter sports because of high community infection rates – has opted back in, according to Section VIII executive director Pat Pizzarelli. And in Uniondale there was a scheduled Board of Education meeting on Tuesday night with high school sports on the agenda; the district had opted out of interscholastic sports after high community spread forced classes to go entirely virtual.
According to Combs and Pizzarelli, student participation will be the primary goal with high-risk winter sports. So instead of holding postseasons to crown county champions in basketball, every team will play the season from start to finish. Combs said Section XI basketball schools will face league opponents once – six games – and then may schedule up to six non-league games.
Suffolk will have a team tournament at the end of the wrestling season and all competitive cheerleading competitions will be held virtually.
"We couldn’t be worried about crowning a champion in basketball, wrestling or cheerleading," Pizzarelli said. "We want the most number of kids playing in the most number of games and this was the way to do it."
"Participation is the priority," Combs said.
He added that wrestling divisions will now be determined by ability instead of proximity in Section VIII, the goal to have the deepest teams play each other and fewer uncontested weight classes.
Reaction among those who play and coach the high-risk winter sports has been overwhelming across Long Island now that both counties will be playing.
Center Moriches senior wrestler Jordan Titus will not have the chance to win a third state championship, but said of the reinstatement of wrestling, "I wanted to compete right away – I love wrestling, so anything to get back on the mat is awesome."
"It’s going to be crazy busy," Deer Park boys basketball coach John McCaffrey said, "but to be honest with you, if they told me we had to get this all done in one night, every coach, administrator and athletic director would sign up to do it because the fact that we can do this on February 1 is awesome."
Athletes are going in with their eyes open about this chance, knowing that a positive COVID test could devastate a team’s season.
"I know we can only play one game and the season could end, so I’m going to fight my hardest and play my best basketball for each game that we are guaranteed," said Remi Sisselman, a senior on the Half Hollow Hills East girls basketball team. "There’s nothing like your senior season – you go your hardest because it’s the last time you are going to put on your school’s jersey."
-- With Owen O'Brien
“We couldn’t be worried about crowning a champion in basketball, wrestling or cheerleading. We want the most number of kids playing in the most number of games and this was the way to do it.” — Pat Pizzarelli
Section VIII executive director