BY JOBY FAWCETT, MARTY MYERS AND JOE BARESS
OLD FORGE — Coach Jared Yanniello yelled directions and his players were attentive.
Michael DiGregorio took the ball at the top of the key, put his head down and dribbled as teammates darted around the basketball court, executing the play until Dante Lucarelli converted a power move in the lane for a basket.
They were winded and sweaty, but Old Forge’s basketball players couldn’t have been happier. On Monday, the Blue Devils took the court as a team for the first time this season as high school sports across the state restarted following a three-week shutdown by Gov. Tom Wolf in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
While some schools in the Lackawanna Interscholastic Athletic Association started Dec. 4 — a delay from the state’s first official practice date of Nov. 20 — before the Dec. 12 pause, Old Forge did not practice at all. Given the green light Monday, they hit the ground sprinting.
“We are having a little bit of a late start, but there is nothing you can do,” DiGregorio said. “We are just trying to get the most work in that we can. Usually, we are close to halfway done with our season in January, this is like the grind time when we are playing conference games, but we are just starting now. It is what it is.
“We are just trying to get the work done.”
LIAA superintendents also got some work done Monday. During a morning meeting, they decided to hold firm to a Jan. 21 start date for winter sports in the Lackawanna League, kept mask wearing as a requirement for indoor sports except swimming, and chose to allow teams that have met the state mandate of 10 practices to schedule nonleague games ahead of the league tip-off date.
Athletics at Wallenpaupack, Honesdale and Western Wayne remain suspended while the schools are conducting classroom instruction virtually. Other schools are also delaying their returns.
Meanwhile, Riverside announced a slate of boys and girls basketball games in the coming days. The Lady Vikes are scheduled to open Saturday with a 2:15 p.m. game against Hanover Area, while the boys are set to start Jan. 11 at Delaware Valley at 6:45 p.m.
The Vikings looked ready to go at their practice Monday, running the floor and showing off soft shooting touches.
“It was really rough,” Riverside senior guard Michael Rickert said of the three-week break. “Usually around the holidays, we were are already playing and had already played big games. It stunk not getting a chance to play those games. But the team is beyond excited to have an opportunity to play. Over the holidays, there was some concern if we would have a season at all. So, I think, getting any games in we can, we will be thrilled.”
Scranton Prep, which has six practices already banked, raised the intensity with full-court layups and tight defensive drills at the Xavier Center.
“To be honest, I couldn’t feel any better than this,” Scranton Prep senior Michael Skoff said. “Throughout all the adversity we have been through, the months without seeing each other, without practicing together, it’s just great to get back in the gym and work with the guys I have been playing with for the last couple of years. This is a really special group and I am really excited to get out there and work with the guys.”
At Abington Heights, senior guard Clair Marion stopped short of counting what she and her teammates did as a practice, instead calling it more of a socially-distanced workout.
“I was just grateful my school said we could start because not all fall sports could happen,” Marion said. “It honestly felt so nice. I just love getting back to be able to play with my team.”
Football and boys and girls soccer saw their season canceled, and the feeling on the team was that basketball could suffer the same fate.
“None of us believed (the season) would happen,” Marion said. “My school didn’t allow fall (contact) sports, which were outdoors, how could they allow winter sports, which are indoors?”
Marion said nervousness was shared by everyone until they were permitted back in the gym Monday. Now they are awaiting Wednesday’s school board meeting with hopes they get the go-ahead for full 5-on-5 practices and interscholastic competition.
In the meantime, Marion’s been doing what she can to be ready.
“I’ve been taking it upon myself to run every day, either outside or on the treadmill and stay in shape that way,” Marion said. “All of us have been doing our fair share to stay in shape. Even though we have not been able to practice, if we have a season, we’re all ready and all in shape.
“Just because we haven’t been able to be with our teammates as much as we are used to, every time in the gym I’m grateful we’re able to do anything.”
That feeling spilled over for junior guard Kaci Kranson as Holy Cross restarted its engines.
“It was honestly the best feeling,” Kranson said. “We’re mentally focused. We just want to get back and get into the routine.
“It was just awesome. I didn’t think we’d have a season. We got the news two days ago. We’re so happy.”
In the time off, Kranson worked on her ballhandling, going out to the driveway hoop and shooting each day, but that was sometimes in layers of clothing and sometimes in challenging weather conditions.
“It’s hard but honestly I don’t mind because I would do anything to get ready for the season,” said Kranson, who is looking forward to the Jan. 21 Lackawanna League opener at Old Forge. “I was working on my moves so I could perfect them for during the games.”
The layoff forced players to find different ways to connect. That left everyone anxious for some face-to-face time. Or in many cases, mask-to-mask.
“The best thing we did was just being there,” Kranson said. “Everyone was working hard, and was mentally there. Played fairly well together.
“I think everyone is working so hard because they’re glad to be back and everyone wanted to be there. No one slacking or complaining and everyone is working hard to get ready.”
At Scranton High School, wrestling coach Dennis Hricenak has a simple message for his team: Win the day.
The Knights met that goal Monday, completing a difficult task for all winter sports squads this season — practice.
Scranton returned to the wrestling room, inching toward the start of competition.
“It sucks because we couldn’t get as much practice in, but it feels good because we get to compete and work hard again,” Scranton junior and co-captain Shkeb Nadir said. “It just creates a stronger bond for us to work hard together because we’re going through the same pain all at the same time. It just gets us together.”
The Knights are in the best position possible with six practices under their belt, while some teams haven’t seen the practice mat. Hricenak also kept his team engaged during the shutdown. Serving as West Scranton’s football coach in the fall, he has experience playing sports through a pandemic.
“I was a little accustomed to having to communicate with the kids not being in-person,” Hricenak said. “So, really through Google Classroom and our Remind App, myself and the assistant coach were constantly sending them just at-home workouts to do. We tried to make it fun, like the challenge of the day, things like that just to keep them moving because it’s tough.”
Nadir never stopped working during the layoff.
“There’s a club called Mat Assassins and I go there to practice with those guys,” Nadir said. “Usually I work out at home, too. That’s mainly how I’ve been keeping in shape.”
Junior and co-captain Mariano Monacelli also didn’t waste time, going to parks and jogging. He also used the opportunity to work on his weight.
“At the beginning of the shutdown, I was kind of heavy on my weight so during the whole time I’ve just been trying to lose weight, diet a little better, just work out as much weight as I can now since you don’t know what kind of season it will be,” Monacelli said. “You’ve got spare time. You might as well use it for something. So I’ve just been slowly getting down and down.”
The Knights return a young squad with no seniors, and will look to improve on their 1-5 Lackawanna League Division I record last season. They return a regional qualifier in sophomore Sean Cordaro. As junior leaders of the young team during a pandemic, Nadir and Monacelli stress patience and hard work.
“I have the mindset of give it your all,” Monacelli said. “We’re not promising anything so why not just go your hardest and if you go your hardest you might even get those matches in for the season and get something out of it. So, just give it everything you’ve got.
“Just try to work with it, try to go with it. It’s not just us who’s struggling. You’ve got to think about the other guys out there who want it just as bad as us, but we just have to want it a little bit more. Just keep the patience. We’re going to get through it eventually.”
Scranton’s first match is scheduled for Jan. 23 against Valley View. However, the Knights will focus on 19 more victories to reach that point, starting with today.
“Just win the day, because if you win today and they shut you down tomorrow, you’re in a good place that you can build off of for everything else,” Hricenak said. So, really we’re not thinking of when’s the first match. We’re just thinking of Monday, Jan. 4.”
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