Pierson Decides To Play High-Risk Sports For ‘Fall’ Season

Pierson's boys soccer team will be led by seniors, from left, Sebastian Gomez, Jhozieo Guanga Soliz, Haptamu Coulter, Nick Collage and Richard Rodriguez. MICHAEL HELLER

Pierson is back on the field and court.

After deciding in January not to compete in high-risk winter athletics — being the only school in Suffolk County not to play basketball — the Sag Harbor School District has decided to reverse course and allow all of its athletes to return to the fields and court for the upcoming fall season. Sag Harbor School Superintendent Jeff Nichols informed Athletic Director Eric Bramoff of his and the school board’s decision late in the day on Wednesday, February 24. Excited of the decision, Bramoff texted a number of “high-risk” athletes — mostly seniors — to let them know that they would have a season, and he was bombarded with a number of enthusiastic responding texts.

“It was a very good feeling to be able to tell the athletes at 5 p.m., as soon as that email went out, and I got to personally speak to the volleyball team and some of the seniors playing football, and there were some very excited seniors,” he said. “We’re going to have an opportunity to play, and from day one all I ever requested was the opportunity to try and have a season within the same platform our opponents in neighboring districts were going to try.”

Despite approval to compete in such high-risk sports as basketball and wrestling from the Suffolk County Department of Health and Suffolk County Legislator Steve Bellone, and soon thereafter New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who passed the decision-making power on to individual counties, Mr. Nichols, with seemingly unanimous support of the school board, recommended against allowing Pierson’s middle school, junior varsity, and varsity basketball teams to play basketball or to send its wrestlers to East Hampton. The major factor in the decision to change the district’s stance, Bramoff said, was that coronavirus cases have dipped significantly throughout the county.

“There is a feeling, with the superintendent and myself, that outdoor sports are far less risky than the indoor sports,” Bramoff explained. “With that being said, we really were caught in a tough decision about the volleyball season, having it be in indoors. With the risk factor being so high, we’re just going to have to be extremely cautious in everything we do.”

Bramoff went as far as contacting every opposing athletic director to get a sense of their school’s protocols and came away with the sense that everyone was trying to do the right thing. That being said, Bramoff said he will have no problem pulling one of his teams out of play if he doesn’t see the correct protocols in place, and if that leads to a loss, so be it.

“I have no problem forfeiting the match and just moving on,” he said. “It’s more important to us to keep our district as safe as possible as it is to win a volleyball match or soccer game.

”We are not going to participate against any team being that we deem is being lax on the mask rule,” Bramoff added. “We are not going to allow any spectators. We will live stream the games, however, which is a positive. But we’re going to be taking a large amount of measures to do this, while we do have the approval of the superintendent, who will be monitoring the situation on a daily basis.”

Lilith Bastek-Ochoa, entering her fifth and final season on the girls volleyball team, said she’s never been more happy and excited to get back on the court. She’s grateful that her and her two senior teammates Angelica Tobias-Navaez and Gylia Dryden will have some semblance of a final season together, even though it may come with some caveats.

Bramoff said that there will be separate buses for varsity and junior varsity teams, not just in volleyball but all fall sports, and there will be separate practice times for each team, as well as separate practice sites, when possible.

Volleyball is such a “social sport,” as Bastek-Ochoa described it, that it will be tough to tone down the close proximity celebrations for things such as match points or wins, but she and her teammates will make it work, she said.

“When we’d come in for points, we’d get in real close and hug, but now we’ll have to touch ankles, feet or elbows. So it will feel different, but we’re following it because we do want to be able to play.

“On the first day of practice, Mr. Bramoff and Coach Fischer, as well as us three seniors because we have to lead this team, we told the girls, we have to wear masks at all times, sanitize our hands and balls, we can’t be close to one another, because we do have eyes on us because the board and the state will be following us and making sure we’re following protocols or we could have the season shut down.”

Richard Barranco was one of the many players who missed out on having a basketball season this winter and who also is entering his senior football season. After Pierson sent its football players to Southampton the past few seasons, it will now be sending its players to East Hampton, since Southampton does not have a varsity team and East Hampton will. Barranco, a linebacker and running back in the past, is used to bouncing between both East Hampton and Southampton throughout his playing career, so he’s just happy to have the opportunity to play this season.

“Honestly, it feels amazing,” he said. “I think the school made the right decision in allowing us to play. I know it was a very difficult decision to not let us take part in basketball this winter, but allowing us to play now is just giving a better atmosphere to the students. I think if everyone takes the proper precautions and everything, we have the potential to have a great season, as long as we follow protocols.”

The atmosphere surrounding the school now after its decision to allow high-risk sports has completely changed, Bramoff said. Everyone seems to be a little more upbeat and is excited for what lies ahead.

“I’ve had two or three parents of volleyball girls contact me and say, ‘I see a change in my teenager,’” he said. “I have a feeling of hope that this is a big piece of the puzzle, giving 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds a chance to play sports again. If we get one game in, I consider it a win and anything we do now will propel us to be better in the spring.”

“I can’t see the smiles,” through the athlete’s masks, Bramoff added, “but I can see it in their eyes and this is a very happy gym.”