The blowing of whistles; the loud and passionate voices of teenagers, masked and bundled in several layers, urging each other on; the crack of a starting gun and the acrid smell of smoke in the air that follows — the sights, sounds and smells of a varsity high school competition were on display at Southampton High School on Sunday afternoon for the first time in nearly a year, as the boys team hosted Center Moriches for its first dual meet of the winter track season.
It was a milestone moment, not just for the athletes out on the track — doing their best to stay warm on a sunny but blustery day — but also for the school’s sports programs in general, as they tested the waters of conducting interscholastic competition during an ongoing pandemic. At the same time on Sunday, the Southampton girls track team was less than an hour away, competing at Center Moriches, as part of a tri-meet that also included Babylon. The meets marked the opener of what will be a condensed season, with no postseason meets or tournaments.
In a sign of what is surely to be a theme for every team this year, the boys meet had lower attendance than originally expected when Babylon had to bow out of what was supposed to be a tri-meet after one of its athletes tested positive for COVID-19. Still, the Mariners made the most of the experience, with several athletes coming up with strong performances in what was a 60-40 loss.
Bill Malone finished the 600-meter race in 1:33.94, which head coach Tony Dottin said was an impressive time for so early in the season. Dottin said he expects the 4×400-meter relay team — which on Sunday included Malone, Harrison Gavalas, Evan Simioni and Saintino Arnold — to be among the best in the league this season. They finished with a time of 4:11 on Sunday. Captain Griffin Schwartz, who did not compete on Sunday, will also frequently be part of that relay team.
While there were moments that made the day feel like a return to some semblance of normalcy, there were plenty of stark reminders of just how much has changed since the last time they gathered for an interscholastic competition. Practicing outdoors for the winter track season is nothing new, but competing outdoors in January certainly is. Normally, the teams would be meeting up at the large indoor track facility at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood for meets, and those meets would include a large handful of teams from across the county. This winter track season will have a similar format as the spring season, with meets featuring only one or two visiting squads.
There were other small but significant changes as well. Aside from the masks, the athletes competing in the relay events were required to wear gloves for the baton hand-offs. In relay events, smooth baton hand-offs are key, and teams spend a lot of time working on them. Wearing gloves added a new element, but it wasn’t necessarily bad; Malone said after the meet that the bright orange gloves they had that day actually created a stronger grip for him and his teammates.
Less than an hour to the west, the Lady Mariners were having a similar experience. They were visitors along with Babylon’s team, but Southampton was only in competition with Center Moriches that day, while Center Moriches was tabulating results against both the visiting teams. Southampton came out on top, beating the Lady Red Devils, 72-44, largely on the strength of the field events and relays.
Hallie Beeker, Ariana Pike, Dreanne Joseph and Juliette Archer teamed up to win the 4×400-meter relay, while Alexis Amandi, Carli Cameron, Katie O’Brien and Diamond Brown took the win in the 4×200-meter relay. Bridget Ferguson won the high jump and Jasmine Head finished second; Kendra Jimenez won the shot put; Amandi won the 55-meter dash, with Brown taking second and Kyla Cerullo taking third; O’Brien won the 55-meter hurdles, Archer won the long jump, with Cerullo and Brown taking second and third, respectively; and Cameron won the triple jump.
Head coach Eddie Arnold was happy with the outcome of the meet. He said everyone was compliant with the new rules and safety guidelines, and added it was good to see the team’s “competitive juices flowing,” (and experience that same feeling himself), particularly as they had to step up in the latter portion of the meet to secure the win.
“At first, I think the kids were nervous,” he said. “It was cold and very windy. But their morale was good, and the level of competition was really up. It was really good to see the kids out there engaging and competing.
“It was a little different at first,” he added. “But once the meet started going, it was almost like we were doing our regular spring season.”
One other reminder of reality came at the end of the meet. Before departing, the teams normally shake hands in a sign of sportsmanship, but that’s off the table this year, of course.
“The kids understand what’s at stake and they’re just happy we have sports,” Arnold said. “We can’t shake hands anymore, so we just did the old Vanna White wave, and then we left.”
Despite the many changes, the athletes agreed that just getting outside for a real competition was a relief, and something they would not soon take for granted. The cold and blustery weather might have given them cause to grumble or complain a year ago, but with the new perspective the virus has forced upon them, they didn’t see it that way.
“I love that we’re out here in this weather,” Malone said after the meet, his voice slightly muffled by his mask and the driving wind. He spoke about how he had been running and training to stay in shape before it was assured that his team would have a season, and how he’s glad he can now put that training on display.
“We’re all really happy to be out here,” he said. “I’m excited for cross country and spring track season, too.”
When asked what he thinks he’ll remember from the milestone day, when he looks back on it years later, Malone smiled.
“I’ll remember that we all had masks on,” he said. “It wasn’t the best situation, but we made it work.”
East Hampton Meets Canceled As School Goes Virtual
It’s been a waiting game for the East Hampton boys and girls track teams.
While other teams across Suffolk County experienced their first taste of interscholastic competition over the weekend, the Bonac squads have been sidelined, and were facing another week of being off the track.
Because the East Hampton School District has been operating on an all-virtual schedule, and will remain that way until at least January 25, the teams have not been permitted to practice or compete. That led not only to the cancellation of their scheduled meets last weekend, but to the postponement of meets they were scheduled to have this coming weekend as well.
Girls head coach Yani Cuesta said earlier this week that she was still unsure whether or not the meets would be rescheduled.
The season officially started on January 4, and the teams got in four days of practice before receiving word on the evening of Friday, January 8, that they had to stop practicing in person because the district was removing to a remote schedule. Further complicating matters is the fact that teams are required to have six practices prior to competing in meets, and as of now, the team has only five, said Ben Turnbull, the boys coach. Cuesta has been trying to keep the team connected by working with her athletes remotely, which she acknowledged has been a challenge.
If the teams can fit in the required number of practices, their first meets would take place on January 30, with the boys scheduled to host Westhampton Beach at 11 a.m., and the girls scheduled to visit Westhampton Beach at the same time.