BY COLLEEN MCALEER
As any parent of a winter athlete can tell you, it is — hands down — the longest of the high school sports seasons.
Except this year.
Parents, athletes, coaches and fans are crossing their fingers to return to that long season- and some sense of normalcy- soon to the courts, mats, and pools.
Tunkhannock Area athletic trainer Charlotte Carpenter wears two hats in that conversation, as she is also the parent of senior Lucas, who is a three sport Tiger.
Lucas played soccer in the fall, wrestles in the winter, and volleyball in the spring, all while working at the family dairy farm where they also raise butcher pigs.
Charlotte’s job has changed, she said, by including more paperwork and more screenings.
“PIAA implemented a COVID waiver in October, after the fall sports had started, as part of their physical requirements,” she explained. “So it is now not just getting the kids to hand in their (recertifications for each season).”
Tunkhannock, as a district, has a school waiver that is good for the year.
She also has to make sure all the coaches are doing their daily screenings, and following the protocols that have been put into place.
“Every coach, every practice, every day has to record each player’s temperature and symptoms,” she said. “But the coaches are all so supportive and cooperative, they understand this is what we have to do to keep the kids playing.”
“I’d say 100 percent yes,” Lucas responded about the effectiveness of the district’s new protocols. “Not that this virus is anything to sneeze at (no pun intended), but the school and District 2 stepped up their game and have followed every protocol there is in order to keep us safe. I feel safer on the mat than I do in Walmart because I know the kids I’m in contact with and if there was a problem I would know right off the bat.”
“It is also hard because these are my kids, I know them all. They used to come and hang out in my office before practices, or before they get on the bus. That has all changed,” the trainer explained. “There is no ‘intermingling’ between teams, separate sports have to stay distanced to limit exposures.”
She also said it has been difficult for her because she has to plan her schedule so she isn’t in multiple practices in a certain time frame.
“There is less human interaction, and more paperwork,” she reflected somberly.
Carpenter also discussed the changes from just last season, as sports are shifting indoors for the cold months.
“Obviously, the environments are more contained indoors,” she explained. “In the fall, it was only volleyball inside, and the teams were separated by a net. Now, wrestling and basketball have just as much contact as football and soccer, but less room to spread out like the outside sports.”
Lucas added, “The biggest difference is probably in winter we got a relatively normal season with very little interruption on Tunkhannock’s end, whereas so far for winter, we have had more time off then we have had in the (mat) room practicing.”
He continued, “My coaches just stressed the fact that we need to be safe and responsible taking care of ourselves and also that we can’t take anything for granted that every moment on the mat we need to make count.”
The crowds, limited in the fall, will almost certainly be regulated by the state government and school districts. Carpenter thinks the athletes that played in the fall will be used to the lack of crowd noise, and the winter athletes will adapt quickly.
“It will be different, but they are still out there playing, so there’s that,” she said.
Carpenter’s biggest concern, however, is the student-athletes themselves.
“The kids are struggling. They have done a great job stepping up and going with all the changes that are thrown at them. Overcoming all this adversity is a major accomplishment,” she said. “But the kids are down. They are out of their routine; students and athletes thrive on routine. Whether it is practice, pre-game, or game time, they are off.”
Lucas, a soccer captain, said his leadership has really been put to the test this year, but all he can do is lead by example.
“I practice like I want to play and I try to push all my guys to do the same thing. I also try to keep my negativity about situations to myself and just try to keep them upbeat,” said the senior who is still undecided about his post-high school plans.
He continued, “When giving advice to freshmen and other underclassmen, I like to think about when I was a freshman and what advice stuck with me; what advice I wish I had known. I try to be a good role model and make them feel like they are doing well because, trust me, being a freshman playing with seniors is hard.”
The younger Carpenter remembered when he was a freshman on the soccer team and how those seniors threw him a “good job” when he made a good pass or clearance, but then how they were not shy about telling him what he did wrong- even if the game was still going on.
“The one thing I live by is to leave something better than you found it. So I really focus on the freshmen as a senior hoping they will make these programs better than they were when I found them,” he explained.
With two decades of experience at Tunkhannock, Charlotte Carpenter spoke with authority as she added, “The players are not interacting with their teammates during the day. Some are in virtual, some are hybrid, and some are cyber. Three days out of the week, the kids are driving in from home. They are struggling to keep that competitive edge.”
She likened the situation to juggling, pointing out the athletes are used to keeping multiple balls in the air.
Carpenter explained, “The kids have school, homework, practices, games, jobs, home life, and social life to manage. They are used to juggling their responsibilities, like apples. But with COVID, and all the changing regulations, and schools shutting down, and seasons pausing, now they are juggling a pear, and apple, and an orange. It is still doable, but it is awkward and unfamiliar.”
“It is definitely an adjustment. I wouldn’t say that it is hard because I have been juggling the barn and school and sports my whole life, but it does make for a long day. I usually log on to schoolwork between 8:30 and 9a.m., then go to my two hour practice, and get home from the barn at 9p.m. With staggered practices, I just work around my practice time leaving that slot open and doing chores and school that time, explained Lucas, who received the best defensive player for soccer this year and was named all-state academic first team last year for wrestling.
He explained his other responsibilities as daily chores.
“I have daily chores including feeding the pigs and cleaning their pens, giving the heifers grain, silage, and hay and making sure they are clean. I then scrape off behind the milk cows and bed them with sawdust and give them their hay,” he said. “In the summer I help with hay and getting the ground ready to be planted.”
Lucas, Charlotte explained, seems to be just going through the motions some days.
“In a normal situation, teammates would see each other in classes, library, the cafeteria, and have that camaraderie. They hang out before practices, see each other more. Now there is a disconnect, and it tends to show in competition. The communication isn’t there, and they don’t play together,” she said.
Lucas added, “We are still keeping in contact the same way we always did as a team through social media and texting, but the biggest difference is just not seeing them everyday. (It) is really making an impact in us coming together as a team.”
Charlotte, a Lackawanna Trail grad, is quick to point out that this is not a Tunkhannock-specific problem, adding that in the past she had noticed non-school day games had challenges.
“Teams tend to not play well on days they are not in school, like Saturdays. Hybrid kids, it seemed in the fall season, took a little longer to catch up in the game than kids that were in the building at school that day,” she said.
“The coaches and administration are handling this pandemic very well,” said Lucas, offering an athlete’s perspective. “Every person at Tunkhannock is putting the kids first. They are put in a tough situation where they will never make every person happy and I am happy I have this group of coaches and administrators around me.”
“Our board and Administration at Tunkhannock has been great keeping us going,” said Carpenter. “They are walking a fine line.”
Tunkhannock wrestling has hosted the area’s largest individual tournament, but this season it has been pinned by COVID.
Lucas said, “We are handling the cancellation relatively well, but everyone is upset. As a senior, I am upset that last year was my last time getting to compete in it and I think the coaches are just upset not getting to see us out there growing and getting better at our sport.”
“I am very hopeful that we will get matches in, but I am not hopeful for post season tournaments such as districts and regionals. I think there will just be too many people to have the postseason,” he said, adding, “But one good thing is that I didn’t have to make weight over the Christmas vacation.”
But the trainer is still keeping her fingers crossed that there is a winter season.
“We will deal with the smaller crowds. We can get used to it. We have staggered practices for our six basketball teams, closed the Administration Building gym to limit exposure, and spring sports have put their trainings on hold,” she said. “Some nights, due to the staggered practices, I am not home until 9p.m.”
“It’s ok, though. We just have to get our ducks in a row,” she concluded.