The winter track and field season is going to look very different, but area coaches and their student-athletes are thrilled to just have the opportunity to return to some sort of normalcy.
“The kids need an outlet at this point in the school year. We want to get the morale up — for them to have something to do and bond over — that’s more important than anything right now,” East Hampton boys track and field coach Mike Buquicchio said of the upcoming condensed season. “We’re going to roll with the punches, because right now, it’s better than nothing.”
But practicing and competing solely outdoors at the high schools beginning January 4 — the scheduled start date for the low-risk winter sports season — is still going to be a challenge. Meets will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday or Sunday and consist of a maximum of four teams, although typically two. The meets will also only be for the race portion, as all field events will take place during practice the day prior. Results are to be reported to officials ahead of the meet’s start time.
During a typical winter season, players are indoors at the Suffolk County Community College track in Brentwood, which is not only smaller than most outdoor tracks, but made of a different material. Because those indoor meets typically boasted at least six teams, with fans from all over crowded around the track, the atmosphere will also be different as the teams pivot to the outdoor meets this year.
Buquicchio said he and East Hampton head coach Ben Turnbell are still discussing how to navigate some of those challenges.
“Ben does a great job stacking the meet and preparing where to put certain guys and where to save certain guys to get the most points, especially for a small team like us, but it’s hard to communicate that to the players when we’re spread out outside and it’s freezing. Guys might even want to wait in their cars. We’ll have to get a megaphone or something,” Buquicchio said. “And I don’t think we’ll get many spectators to show up in January and February. It’s going to be a totally different environment.”
He, like many other coaches, is also unsure of what teams will look like following last week’s indefinite postponement of high-risk sports like wrestling and basketball.
“There’s a bunch of unknowns we’re trying to prepare for,” the coach said. “I don’t know if they’ll want to join, and we also have to be mindful of the number of kids on a bus, so we may only be able to bring kids that are going to score.”
What further complicates things is getting students who are new to the team acclimated in a short period of time.
“We jump right into it. We have a meet the second week. The schedule is packed,” Buquicchio said. “For the guys new to learning what track is and what events they’re interested in, I have no idea how we’re going to do that. We’re going into it full speed ahead with a short time frame.”
Hampton Bays head coach Kevin O’Toole said his girls, especially seniors Adasha Lopez, Heilyn Ovares, Cassidy Moore, Emma Naclerio and Saorla Scully, can’t wait for the season to start, and will do whatever they need to make it happen, come rain, shine or even snow.
“The girls are so excited just to get back at it and have a season. We have had days where the teammates brought shovels and cleared off the track, so it might just come to that, but they’ll do anything to get some runs in,” he said. “They’ve been pretty receptive to everything — they don’t even seem to care or be bothered by us being outside all the time.”
But Westhampton Beach head coach John Broich said he recalls years when his girls weren’t able to even get on the track a single day in January because of the weather.
“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “I’m also afraid of what could happen, maybe the season being canceled, if we’re labeled a microcluster. Who knows?”
Broich also said he doesn’t want to see a kid get hurt. O’Toole agreed he’s worried about the heightened chance of injury.
“We’re definitely going to change our training, especially in that cold weather — you have to be careful with doing a lot of sprint training, because cold weather can cause muscles to tear,” the coach said. “Practices can also no longer be held indoors in the hallways or in the weight room like we typically do on inclement weather days. I reached out to the girls when we heard the official news to tell them to take advantage of holiday sales and get some warm gear.”
Section XI Executive Director Tom Combs said the meets have to be held outdoors because Suffolk County’s governing body of athletics could not find an indoor facility to accommodate the winter season.
“Due to this, we will be holding our meets outdoors at various high schools,” he said. “It is our hope that we will be able to host a culminating event in late February at an indoor facility, should the governmental restrictions allow this to occur.”
Suffolk County Community College Director of Communications Drew Biondo said no determination has been made as to whether the college can host student-athletes.
“Suffolk County Community College has [submitted] an application to the Suffolk County Department of Health to open the arena,” he said. “Our application is pending.”
But some coaches, like Westhampton Beach’s Jack Ryan, said he’s not as concerned about meets being held outdoors.
“There are days during the spring season that are just as cold,” the coach said. “The guys have been working as hard as ever to stay fit and healthy. We’re all excited at the possibility of being able to compete in a safe environment.”
As for Buquicchio, he too fears muscle tears, along with kids slipping on ice or getting sick. He’s especially worried about what the weather conditions could bring for those like senior hurdler Luc Campbell.
“It’s hard to hurdle in the winter. It’s dangerous with the ice and the snow,” the coach said. “But Luc just really wants a chance to get back into it because it is something he’s interested in pursuing. The progression he’s made in the hurdles is outstanding, and he could be at the college level if he just has a little time to work on stuff.”
For those like Jackie Amato, one of Broich’s two seniors, along with Oceane Ode, this season could potentially be her last. The All-State and All-County relay runner that nabbed gold last year typically plays lacrosse in the spring.
Buquicchio said while the restrictions have been hard on all of his players, he said they know they “aren’t being deprived of anything,” and many seniors are just thankful they will hopefully get what some last spring did not — a chance to close the high school career book.
“While it may not be what we want, we’re on the same page knowing we have to be safe and look out for each other,” Buquicchio said, but added it doesn’t change the fact he feels they deserve a season.
O’Toole felt similarly, saying he sees nothing but positives coming from the year ahead, even if things do look different and there isn’t a postseason.
“They’ve lost so much of their high school careers to this point. The second half of last year was a wash, the beginning of this year — but the damages are not just in sports, they’ve lost junior prom, their senior trip,” O’Toole said. “This is something to put us one step back in the right direction. It’s something that they’re going to look forward to — to give us a chance to start feeling like things are normal again.”