After a long hiatus from the varsity ranks, the East Hampton football team was gearing up for its return this fall. Joe McKee and his coaching staff had rebuilt the program back from the ground up. After not having a program at all four years ago, the Bonackers returned to the junior varsity circuit in 2017, and last season enjoyed a successful 6-1 campaign.
Building off that success, with numbers good enough to field both varsity and JV squads and the readdition of some key Pierson student-athletes, McKee felt 2020 was the year to get back to the varsity ranks.
Then coronavirus happened.
Football has been deemed by New York State as a high-risk sport, and while a handful of sports were judged safe to play starting on September 21 last week by governor Andrew M. Cuomo, those looking to get on the gridiron this fall are still waiting for some answers as to whether that will actually happen.
Drew Salamy is one of the many East Hampton seniors who have been waiting for the day when they can see the varsity football ranks. Another hurdle has been thrown in the Bonackers’ way, but Salamy, a wide receiver and team captain, said he and his teammates are staying positive and holding out hope that they will one day soon get on the field.
“We’ve been trying our best with the cards that we’ve been handed,” he said Monday evening. “Everyone’s going at it as if we’re definitely going to have a season … and until someone tells us that we’re not playing at all, we’re going at it full bore.”
Salamy said that earlier in the year, he and his teammates held workouts two or three times a week. Over the summer, those workouts have died down some, Salamy said, but he and his teammates will get back to work as early as this week. The team’s big group chat has been buzzing, Salamy said, and everyone is excited about the possibility of getting back on the field.
“It was good to have a JV season the past couple of years. We were just happy to get on the field,” Salamy said. “But having a real varsity team, it gets a lot more competitive and it gets our whole community involved and thinking about us. We’ve honestly been wanting to play a game as soon as possible. Once we get on the field, it’s going to feel great.”
The question still remains, though: when will football get back on the field?
The governor said last week that cross country, field hockey, soccer, swimming and tennis can all return. Golf was left off the governor’s list in error and can return as well. Football, along with ice hockey and volleyball, were both deemed high-risk sports, and have not been authorized to play any games yet, although the governor said that football teams can start practicing on September 21, which left many across the state scratching their heads.
Officials at Section XI, the governing body of Suffolk County high school athletics, have been waiting on more direction from the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, the governing body of New York State high school athletics. On Monday, NYSPHSAA and its COVID-19 Task Force met for the fifth time since the pandemic started, and announced it is “developing a comprehensive document with guidance for member schools to utilize as they prepare for the return of interscholastic athletics this fall,” as stated on its website, nysphaa.org. That document is expected to be released this Friday, September 4.
The state also passed along a few new measures, including delaying the start of the winter sports season, from November 16 to November 30, “to give schools and sections more time to complete the fall athletic season.”
The state also revised its number of required practices for the fall sports seasons—12 practices for football, 10 for all other fall sports—and it waived the seven consecutive day rule starting on October 12. The state continues to consider football and volleyball as high-risk fall sports and games for low to moderate risk sports will continue to compete within their league or section until October 19.
Regardless of whether football is allowed to be played this season, Southampton will not field a varsity team this fall, a decision athletic director Darren Phillips said was made in June. The team had an issue with numbers last season, and had to forfeit its final game at Port Jefferson because it did not have enough players to play the game. With numbers hovering around the same as last year, Phillips said the school decided it would be best to go with a junior varsity team only this season. If football is played, it will be the first time in the school’s 100-plus year history the Mariners haven’t played a varsity season.
Chris Campbell, Southampton’s varsity head football coach, said regardless of the situation the program was in, he decided he is going to sit out this season, due to concerns with the coronavirus. Phillips said that he was waiting to see what happens with football before he decides on a head coach for the JV team, but said that the interim coach would most likely come from in-house.
“I made my decision not to coach this season based on the science, the numbers and the unforgivable feeling I would have if I lead any student/athletes onto the football field knowing there was a high risk of contracting this virus … and then even one student/athlete tested positive,” Campbell explained. “If our program was coming off an undefeated, championship season with every player returning, I would still sit out the season. There should be no rushing into fall or winter athletics; especially for full contact sports.
“The safety of our kids should be the only factor when making such a decision,” he added.
Campbell’s decision to sit out this season is something that many school districts across Long Island and New York State will have to deal with. Coaches and players alike will be making their own personal decisions to return to the field or not, regardless of whether the state or county says its okay for them to return.
When the state releases more of its guidelines on Friday, many East End athletic directors are hoping it will give them and their fellow Suffolk County colleagues a more clear direction to follow. But even then, it will be up to the singular school districts as to what they want to do going forward. The state and the county are providing rules and regulations for the school districts, which could decide to opt out of sports altogether or come up with different plans, as long as they abide by the rules.
East Hampton Athletic Director Joe Vasile-Cozzo said it’s going to be a challenge getting fall sports going.
“We’re in such uncharted territory,” he said. “There may be some parents who decide to hold their kids out. Some may decide to do remote learning. If they do, they’re allowed to play sports, but they’ll have to find a way to get to and from school.”
Vasile-Cozzo said transportation, to and from games, will be tough to figure out as well, since buses can only be a 50-percent capacity.
“Our soccer team carries over 30 kids. You can’t have over 22 kids on a bus,” he said. “One of the options is a travel team, where you only take 22 kids with you to away games. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. There are certain days, where like on a weekend, I can have an extra bus.”
The biggest concern right now, Vasile-Cozzo said, other than the kids’ safety, is making sure that every school throughout the county is following the same protocols and measures.
“You want the same thing happening in Eastport as is happening in East Hampton,” he said “We all have to work together and make sure everyone — the kids, parents, schools — are all on the same page.”