Intramural Sports Give High School Athletes A Sense Of Normalcy In Uncertain Times

Intramural soccer at Southampton High School. DANA SHAW

When Maureen Duffy walked onto Westhampton Beach High School’s turf field shortly after the dismissal bell rang on October 5, she wasn’t sure what to expect. But she’d already decided she didn’t care—a lacrosse stick was in her hands, so nothing else really mattered.

The senior midfielder, headed to the University of Virginia next fall on a full athletic scholarship, saw her junior lacrosse season canceled last spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, becoming one of many high school athletes across the country wondering when she’d take the field with her team again.

Section XI, Suffolk County’s governing body of high school sports, announced in September that all interscholastic competition would be postponed until January, but athletic directors at several East End high schools have put together intramural programs that allow student-athletes to claim some sense of normalcy and keep a connection to the sports they love, while adhering to school policies and following safety guidelines outlined by the state to ensure their health and safety.

As has been the case with anything related to COVID-19, school officials and athletic directors have taken different approaches to offering intramural sports programs and offseason workouts for their student-athletes, tailoring their offerings in ways they feel best meet the needs of their school community.

Westhampton Beach began its intramural program first, starting on October 5 with a plan to offer spring sports in October and fall sports in November, while Southampton High School is set to start its intramural program the third week of October with its traditional fall sports as well as a unified soccer program for athletes with special needs, and a general fitness and conditioning program for students craving physical activity, but not necessarily interested in a particular sport. East Hampton, meanwhile, is hosting offseason workouts for a variety of sports, both at the school and at other locations in the town, while Pierson, Bridgehampton and Hampton Bays were still in the process of trying to figure out a plan, as of mid-October, for some form of intramurals or workouts.

Southampton and Westhampton Beach are paying the coaches at a club or intramural rate, while the process is on a voluntary basis for coaches at East Hampton.

The programs are a far cry from what student-athletes are accustomed to — breathing hard with a mask on was an adjustment, Duffy admitted, and keeping a safe distance from others is particularly tough in contact sports like soccer, football and field hockey. The focus, by necessity, is primarily on conditioning and practice drills that comply with social distancing, keeping players in small groups, while scenarios that come closer to simulating live game action, like scrimmages, are mostly off the table, at least for now. There are also the notable missing faces at each session — because schools are following a hybrid model for in-person instruction, they must maintain the sanctity of those “pods” for the intramural programs as well. For athletes like Duffy, that means only playing with teammates who attend school on the same days they do, while other teammates meet on the field on a different day of the week.

Despite all those changes and restrictions, Duffy doesn’t have a single complaint. In fact, she said her teammates joked about the irony of new restrictions making them more grateful for the time they have together and with their varsity coach, Mary Bergmann.

“Before [intramurals] started, we didn’t really know what we were getting into, and we were talking and wondering, is Coach B going to make us run?” she said. “But then we quickly decided we didn’t really care. We were just happy to be there at this point.”

Westhampton Beach softball coach Jeff Doroski gives throwing instruction to Marcella Fitzgerald. CAILIN RILEY

Not having a season last spring was “really weird,” Duffy said, pointing out that it was the first time since she was in seventh grade that she didn’t play lacrosse in the fall. While many players in a number of different sports have been competing on travel teams over the summer and fall — which operate with much less restrictions because they are not beholden to the rules and regulations of any central governing body — getting back on the high school field has a special meaning for student-athletes. That’s been true not only for standout talents like Duffy, who know they still have years of playing ahead of them at the next level, but also for student-athletes who don’t expect to play in college, and who may not have the skills or financial resources to join a travel team.

Finding a way to give all students a chance to play a sport or engage in physical activity after school was the driving motivation for Southampton High School Athletic Director Darren Phillips. Southampton’s intramurals program starts a bit later in the day than Westhampton’s — students go home, and then return to the school with sessions that start at 3:45 p.m. and others that start under the lights later in the evening, and even some on Saturdays. Like Westhampton Beach, the now familiar safety procedures are in place — health attestations, temperature checks, strict attendance taking, no use of locker rooms or indoor facilities, mask wearing. Even with those restrictions in place, the program gives athletes a chance to stay in shape and keep their skills sharp, which will be important if interscholastic competition is able to resume at the start of next year, as is the tentative plan. (Winter sports would come first, with a shortened season, followed by traditional fall sports having their season in the early spring, and then the resumption of the spring sports season in the late spring, assuming infection rates stay low). Phillips pointed out that the aforementioned benefits for student-athletes are only a small part of why the intramurals program is important.

“With so many kids, sports are such a big part of their life, and as much as we focus on the physical aspect of it, it’s the social connection with the coach and being out there together with their friends and teammates that can make them feel like it’s all going to be OK,” he said. “That’s a big support system for a lot of kids.”

Westhampton Beach Athletic Director Kathy Masterson agreed, adding that she remembered just how crucial sports were to her well-being and her academic success when she was a multi-sport athlete at Southampton High School.

“Not being able to play something you love is so hard,” she said. “I wasn’t the best student, but I went to school and got good grades because I wanted to be an athlete. The only reason I went to school was sports, and I’m still in school because of sports.”

East Hampton decided to model its after-school sports offerings based on what it typically does in the summer for offseason workouts. Athletic Director Joe Vasile-Cozzo said school officials chose this model because they wanted it to be “totally voluntary” for both coaches and student-athletes, making sure no one felt compelled to participate if they were unable for any reasons. The coaches who are participating are volunteering their time and not being paid, and like at Southampton and Westhampton, the athletes are playing alongside classmates within their academic cohorts only. Sports like wrestling and football are focusing mainly on conditioning work and drills outdoors to maintain social distancing, while baseball, softball, girls lacrosse and track athletes are also getting a chance to participate. Because boys lacrosse is a combined program with Southampton and Pierson, there is no option for that sport right now. Volleyball, girls basketball and golf are not being offered either, while boys basketball players are continuing to meet and play on the courts at Herrick Park, which they did over the summer. The field hockey program is continuing offseason workouts it held at Sportime in Amagansett over the summer.
East Hampton started offering those options at the start of October, and in two weeks time, roughly 300 kids signed up, according to Vasile-Cozzo.

“It’s been nice to see the kids out there,” he said.

Hampton Bays has been working on trying to put a program together, but Athletic Director Drew Walker said last week that nothing was set in stone yet. The situation is similar at Pierson, where Athletic Director Eric Bramoff said last week that he was still working with the administration to offer some form of outdoor offseason workouts for student-athletes in the high school only, but was dedicated to taking a cautious approach and did not yet have a concrete start date.

“We’ve been watching what neighboring schools have been doing, and it’s OK that we’re a little delayed because we can cherry pick best practices and meld it into a program that works for our district,” he said, emphasizing that local athletic directors have been in constant contact with each other to help support decision making.

Because many of Pierson’s athletic offerings are in combined sports programs, where they either host student-athletes from other schools like Bridgehampton on their team or send student-athletes to East Hampton for sports like football and wrestling, that adds a layer of difficulty in coming up with a safe plan for all athletes.

Still, Bramoff said he and school officials were working hard to try to put something in place. And like Masterson, he knows from experience how vital sports are to the mental health and well being of many students, drawing on his experience as a multi-sport athlete at Pierson in the 1990s, which he continued in college, as well. Balancing the need for that outlet and the necessity of staying safe is the tough line he and other athletic directors are trying their best to walk.

“The kids need something to fill the void, and it’s a huge void,” he said. “But I don’t ever want to take a step forward to only have to take another step back, or cause more damage than good.”

While officials have varied in their approaches to facilitating some form of sports offerings after school, athletic directors and student-athletes agree that everyone has the same end goal, and is doing their best to stay positive while trying to achieve it, no matter what it ends up looking like, while also remaining optimistic for a return to what they’re used to soon.

“The kids are troupers. They’re doing a great job with this whole thing,” Masterson said. “I’m really proud of them and the job they’ve been doing.”

“I’m just beyond grateful that we can go out there,” Duffy said. “We all just love playing and want to be together. We have to appreciate everything we have right now. Having this hour and a half every week, I really, really appreciate it. It’s a sense of normalcy for everybody, and we all need it.”