In a normal basketball season, high school, college and professional games would be well under way by early December. But the explosive spike in COVID cases has thrown a wrench into the works and basketball coaches, at every level, have been dealing with issues no one could have dreamed of in the past.
High school games for both boys and girls, in Ohio, have started their seasons on time but saddled with protocols and restrictions. NCAA basketball games moved their start back a couple weeks and limited their schedules to 27 games. Many were forced to suspend their openers due to COVID cases and some conferences, including the Ivy League, have shut their programs down for the entire season. Locally, UNOH, an NAIA program playing in the WHAC Conference, has moved the start of the season to January 1st. The NBA will begin play on December 22, nearly two months after their seasons would normally begin.
Confused? Join the club. I feel bad for the athletes and fans as they work their way through the maze of protocols and testing required to play and witness games but, as a former coach, I reserve much of my sympathy for the coaches and the challenges they face in attempting to simply perform their jobs.
In talking with local coaches, the theme of uncertainty is a common refrain. Caleb Williams, who is beginning his fourth year as head coach of the UNOH’s basketball program here in Lima, described the frustration that COVID restrictions can inflict on those working to prepare their teams for a new season. “There is constant stress,” Williams says. “Every day you wake up not really knowing what the day will bring.”
Williams should know. After finishing last season on a run of promising games, returning key veterans and adding some talented recruits, the Racer pre-season practice schedule has been forced to start, then stop, then start, then stop again because of COVID and quarantines due to close contacts. “Coaches are all about routine and organization,” he says. “The last time we had our entire team together for a practice was October 28. There is no normalcy now, you just pray for the best.”
Williams is also frustrated by the lack of conformity in the application of restrictions. “We have some local players who are able to go watch their high schools play but are waiting in a holding pattern for their own games,” he says.
Eric Rosenbeck, St. Henry High School’s head boys coach agrees with Williams. “The most difficult part of all of this is the uncertainty,” he says. “Will we have everyone at practice today, will we be allowed to play our next game, is a positive test going to change everything?” With the absence of out of season camps and summer league play, Rosenbeck also missed the opportunity to evaluate his players against other competitors. “You can only play against yourself for so long,” he added.
Coach Rosenbeck tries to place a positive spin on the challenges when addressing his players. “Our message from day one has been that we can only control what we are handed, and so our goal is to get better every day, regardless of the circumstances,” he says. “We play the game because we love it. It doesn’t matter how many people are sitting in the stands. It’s all about simply competing.”
Lima Central Catholic’s veteran coach, Frank Kill, talked about the impact COVID has had on team-building. Basketball is all about developing chemistry and, in today’s game, much of that is formed during the summer, out of season, schedule. “Teams did not get the opportunity this year to have the kind of bonding that takes place in summer ball,” he says. “The hand in the huddle, the van rides, summer camps, just being together.” Veteran squads are going to have an extra leg up this season as teams get a late start and limited opportunities to develop their chemistry.
During my own coaching career, my focus was on routine and consistency, not only in my own preparation but also in the demands I made on our players. My heart goes out to coaches and athletes who are mired in the daily uncertainty that has disrupted the rhythm so integral for successful programs. Let’s give them all a break this season as they work through challenges no one could have imagined just a year ago.
As we head into the unknown, the good news is that there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel as news of vaccines make their way into the headlines. And even if some games are postponed or canceled, we don’t have to look far for heroes in our community. They are the front-line workers in the medical field who are the first line of defense against the pandemic. The very least we can do is support them by masking up and by practicing social distancing. After all, we are all in this together.
Good luck to all area teams this season.