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High School coaches try to chart course for winter sports amid COVID-19 surge, tightened restrictions

High School coaches try to chart course for winter sports amid COVID-19 surge, tightened restrictions

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Make no mistake, Madison Memorial boys basketball coach Steve Collins would like to be in the classroom teaching statistics classes and on the court directing the Spartans.

He misses seeing his students and players in person.

“I want to coach,” said Collins, entering his 23rd season as Madison Memorial’s coach. “I’m one of the most competitive people around. I want to be in the gym with my players. But leaders have to make decisions that are hard sometimes.”

Collins believes the correct decision has been made for health reasons by the Madison Metropolitan School District to delay starting in-person play until Jan. 25 at the earliest and by the Big Eight Conference, which won’t hold conference competitions and name conference champions during the winter sports season, in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“I don’t think it’s safe to play right now,” said Collins, particularly citing basketball, wrestling and ice hockey.

Collins said he’s frustrated there hasn’t been a unified plan in the state to combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic this year and that more people aren’t following best health practices.

“You see the numbers (that have been rising in the state related to COVID-19 cases and deaths),” Collins said. “I think we are doing the right thing. I’m proud of the school district and Big Eight. There’s a saying that leaders not only worry about themselves, but they worry about others. I think those in the Big Eight are being leaders.”

Others, including Verona girls basketball coach Angie Murphy, have advocated for winter sports, emphasizing mental health benefits for participants.

WIAA practices were allowed to begin in the state in girls basketball, gymnastics and boys and girls ice hockey this week and start in boys basketball, wrestling and boys swimming and diving next week.

In this area, schools’ winter sports plans run the gamut depending on health guidelines in each county and specific school district decisions about academic models and activities, including athletics. Schools in Dane County face more restrictive guidelines than in other nearby counties.

That means some area schools are starting to practice and play on schedule; are practicing until they are permitted to play; are delaying starting practice and playing; or are not planning to play unless health metrics change dramatically. (Madison Abundant Life and Madison Country Day, for instance, announced they don’t plan to play basketball this winter.)

Monona Grove boys basketball coach Dan Zweifel said his school, which is in Dane County, has decided to delay the start of its boys and girls basketball practices until Jan. 4 when it will begin with small-group sessions.

No games have been scheduled yet and the school isn’t planning to play outside Dane County, he said.

“I have nine seniors returning,” said Zweifel, in his 25th season as coach. “I’d love to see them get to play one more time for Monona Grove.”

Their best-case scenario appears to be playing an abbreviated season in late January and February.

“That’s the hope,” Zweifel said. “I don’t know if it’s possible. We’re trying to be safe and make good decisions.”

Lake Mills, which is in Jefferson County, started girls basketball practice this week and the boys team is scheduled to begin practice next week.

“I’ve been prepared for anything,” Lake Mills boys basketball coach Steve Hicklin said of the ever-changing COVID-19 landscape. “We are fortunate to play whenever we get to play. We will embrace the opportunities we do get. But we are not naïve.”

The L-Cats, who have 22 games scheduled, will wear masks and split up more during practices, but their gathering numbers aren’t limited, Hicklin said.

“We are excited for this group and what they can achieve, if we are provided the opportunity,” Hicklin said.

Area schools’ plans continue to be re-examined and adjusted based on new developments.

For instance, several school districts in Rock County recently had approved winter sports but the county announced Monday it was returning to Phase 1 of its COVID-19 reopening plan, meaning school boards, including for the Janesville schools, were taking another look at their plans. The Janesville district decided to move forward with winter sports Wednesday night. 

On Tuesday, Public Health Madison & Dane County issued an emergency order that went into effect Wednesday prohibiting “indoor gatherings of any size” and limiting outdoor gatherings to 10 people or less with physical distancing until Dec. 16. That included in-person games, sports and competitions.

That order effectively postponed the small-group practices in some sports that several schools in Dane County had set up and started just this week.

For instance, the Sun Prairie girls basketball team tweeted that such practices were postponed until Dec. 16.

Stoughton athletic and activities director Mel Dow told Stoughton families that “all in-person practices, rehearsals, open gyms, etc., associated with our athletic programs and extra-curricular activities will be canceled” Nov. 18 through Dec. 16.

Oregon girls basketball coach Adam Wamsley tweeted that his team’s first and only such practice was one of his highlights for the past seven months and that the smiles and energy were fantastic. “I miss it already,” he tweeted. “We will be back.”

At two Dane County schools that were impacted, Mount Horeb activities director Kolleen Nesheim and Madison Edgewood athletic director Chris Zwettler each replied Tuesday they were digesting the news and how to proceed. Edgewood has been looking at practice options outside the county.

Prior to the new order, Mount Horeb boys basketball coach Todd Nesheim said Monday night that the Vikings’ program had planned to start small-group practices next week lasting an hour four times per week.

The players — wearing masks, in pods of 10 and spaced 6 feet apart  primarily would work on shooting, ball handling and conditioning and wouldn’t be permitted to do any live drills or scrimmaging, he said.

About 32 decided to come out for basketball, with six to eight opting not to participate, he said.

Masks would be required and the students, who would complete daily health self-checks, would be assigned parking spots and told to enter through a specific door.

Nesheim said he was happy to have the potential to practice, realizing other schools in Dane County didn’t have that opportunity.

“It will be good just to be back with our kids,” he said. “We haven’t seen our group since March 6 when we lost to Reedsburg. We will feel like a team again.”

If and when they can start, small-group practice is what they will have until the health restrictions change.

No games have been scheduled, although he believes Mount Horeb will be able to set up games with other Dane County schools in the same situation.

Without in-person practices at Memorial, Collins, meanwhile, will focus on virtual relationship-building with his team.

“I want to keep them engaged,” he said.

Collins is optimistic about a COVID-19 vaccine coming.

But Collins, the stats teacher, said: “With all the lurking variables, I don’t see us playing in January.”

The Trailways Conference announced Wednesday that "all spectators, players, coaches and officials will wear masks the entire winter sports season (basketball and wrestling)." 


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Jon Masson covers high school sports for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has covered a variety of sports — including the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin men's and women's basketball and volleyball — since he first came to the State Journal in 1999.

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