High Risk Winter High School Sports ‘Indefinitely Postponed’ By State

Pierson junior Wilson Bennett goes up for a layup in a game against Center Moriches last year. Michael Heller photo

“The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy.”

Those words, spoken by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., lit up the screens of members of the Southampton boys basketball team in a group text earlier this month. It was one of many quotes sent to them, almost daily, by their head coach, Herm Lamison. It joined other texts in a similar vein: “Don’t tell me how tough the situation is, show me how tough you are at handling it.” In a normal year, it’s something the longtime coach might say to their faces, maybe in the locker room after a tough loss, or in practice the next day.
Of course, this is not a normal year.

For the first time in decades, Lamison finds himself sitting at home on weekday nights in December, instead of leading practice sessions with the Mariners varsity boys basketball team he has coached since 1991, and it’s likely he will continue to adjust to the new normal of having undesired free time on his hands in the evenings for the rest of the year and the early part of 2021, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association and Section XI dealt a tough blow late last week to winter student-athletes, particularly those participating in high-risk sports like basketball and wrestling, making it appear even less likely that they will compete on the mats or the hardwood at all this school year. There was also some confusion about the status of high-risk sports, leading to a flurry of conversation among local athletic directors, coaches and student-athletes.

The governing body for sports in the state announced on Friday the cancellation of all winter sports championships, even those for low-risk sports such as winter track, swimming and diving, and bowling, which have been authorized to start their seasons on January 4. The start of practice and games for high-risk sports such as basketball and wrestling has been postponed indefinitely, pending authorization from state officials and the governor’s office.

“When examining the feasibility of Winter State Championships, it became apparent that travel and overnight accommodations would create a unique challenge for our member schools,” said Dr. Robert Zayas, NYSPHSAA executive director, in a news article posted on Section XI’s website. “At this time, we must prioritize maximizing student participation without a focus on championship events.”

For those eagerly waiting to hear if the basketball, wrestling and competitive cheerleading seasons still have a chance to exist this year, hopes were briefly dashed and then quickly reignited, although most coaches and athletes involved with those sports are still aware it’s more likely than not that they will be canceled at some point. Around noon, an email was sent to athletic directors in Suffolk County saying that boys and girls basketball, wrestling, and competitive cheerleading “will not run this year,” prompting many athletic directors to notify coaches immediately for fear they would hear of the cancellation of their seasons from other sources. But shortly after, Section XI sent another email that contradicted their first, saying that the high-risk sports seasons hadn’t been canceled but were “indefinitely postponed,” awaiting further guidance from the state.

When reached via email, Section XI Executive Director Tom Combs — who signed the original email, along with assistant director Pete Blieberg — said the word cancellation “should not have been used.”

“Section XI is following the state guidelines and is indefinitely postponing high-risk winter sports until further information comes from the governor’s office,” he added.

For coaches like Lamison, every day that passes makes it harder to hold out hope that they will have a season. More than any other sport, with the exception of wrestling, basketball is almost impossible to alter in a way that complies with social distancing guidelines, making it hard to imagine how a season could be conducted safely. Coaches of those sports are left to try and find ways to remain connected to their players, and the student-athletes themselves are left to ponder what could have been this year, particularly senior athletes.

“It’s horrible, and the kids have a harder time grasping it all because their maturity just isn’t there yet,” Lamison said when asked what kind of effect the specter of a canceled season is having on his players. “I just try to send them encouraging quotes and messages a few times a week to keep their minds engaged and keep them focused. It’s a difficult thing for them to deal with.”

Wondering what could have been is a situation many senior athletes find themselves in this year. Westhampton Beach senior Jackson Hulse is a perfect example. The standout three-sport athlete saw what would have been his junior lacrosse season canceled in the spring, was unable to play football this fall, and had a very good chance to become the first wrestler in Hurricanes history to advance to the New York State Tournament three years in a row. Hulse’s junior season of lacrosse, and senior year playing his final seasons in all three of his sports, would have expanded his opportunities for playing one, if not two, sports at the collegiate level. He’s a strong student academically, hoping to major in finance or engineering, and is eyeing schools like Tufts, Williams and Columbia, where his potential as a standout athlete makes him an even more attractive candidate.

While the virus has likely limited some of his choices, Hulse had still done enough that, unlike most high school athletes, he will continue playing a sport in college, and said he’s trying to focus on that to stay upbeat. And while he is disappointed that, barring a miracle, he won’t be wrestling in his senior year, he said he feels fortunate in many ways.

“However bad it is for me, it’s worse for other kids that might not have a future in sports after high school, and that this is there last season to get out there,” he said.
Hulse won a coveted Suffolk County Division I wrestling championship in his sophomore year, and was All-County after a top-three finish last year as well, but said he thinks about teammate Gavin McIntyre, a talented wrestler who lost in the “blood round” (one victory shy of All-County status) in the last two seasons at the county tournament. McIntyre had a great chance to earn All-County honors during his senior year of wrestling.

“He’s my best friend, and it’s really hard to see him go through that,” Hulse said. “It’s tough for kids like that. It just leaves them with a lot of time thinking about what they could have done.”

There are certainly several members of the Westhampton Beach girls basketball team who will have that on their minds.

In March, one day before they were set to play for a Long Island Championship, in their own gym, they suddenly found themselves all in tears when Athletic Director Kathy Masterson walked in and had to deliver the news that the pandemic caused the rest of their season to be canceled. As months went by, and summer turned into fall, players like returning senior Edona Popi — whose only sports is basketball and who has been part of the program since her freshman year — slowly began to realize that their county championship win in her senior year was likely to be the last high school game she ever played.

“I remember it like a light bulb moment,” Popi said of the day their season was canceled. “It really hit hard, and now that we don’t have a season this year, it sucks, to put it simply.”

Popi said the team had a saying they repeated frequently last season; that they wanted to “ride under the flag.” It was a reference to the celebration the Hurricanes boys volleyball team enjoyed, getting a ride on the fire truck under a large American flag draped above them, after they advanced to states last year. That became a motivator for the girls basketball team, and they’re now realizing it’s something they’re unlikely to ever do together.

“I’m aware that it’s sports and in this time right now, it’s not the most important thing, but it’s still rough,” Popi said.

Popi said she tries to be grateful for the opportunities she did have. Winning a county championship with the Lady Hurricanes is a memory that can never be taken away. She said she’s learned a lot about herself, too, with the early lockdown period in the spring helping distill what and who matters most to her, where to direct her energies.

East Hampton varsity wrestling coach Ethan Mitchell admitted that what winter student-athletes like Popi and Hulse are facing this year is “heartbreaking.” He’s watching some of his own wrestlers lose out on a chance to compete and make a name for themselves, after they put in a lot of work to get better during the offseason. But he said the premature end to their high school careers that the pandemic has caused can also serve as a powerful reminder for those student-athletes, one they might call on later in life.

“It’s really the epitome of you never know when your last opportunity to do anything will be,” he said. “You don’t know when the last time will be that you step on the mat or on the field. If you can take anything away from all of this, it’s that.”