BY JOBY FAWCETT AND MARTY MYERS
Wrestlers at West Scranton started practice as they always do with a run before hitting the wrestling room.
However, before the Invaders could get on the mat, the fire alarm blared throughout the school.
Welcome to the 2020-2021 winter sports season.
It was a false alarm, but put a fitting pause to a session that was on hold since superintendents directed the Lackawanna Interscholastic Athletic Association to delay the first day from Nov. 20 to Friday.
The workouts looked familiar, but the faces didn’t. Not because the Invaders brought in a bunch of newcomers. They all wore masks.
“Obviously, it’s a little bit harder to breathe in, but what are you going to do,” West Scranton senior wrestler and one of the Invaders’ three captains John Fuller said. “At least we get to have a season. It’s no excuse to not train hard.”
High school winter sports practice officially started for Lackawanna League squads in wrestling, boys and girls basketball, and swimming. However, not every school hit the mat, court or pool.
Dunmore, Blue Ridge, Forest City, Lackawanna Trail and North Pocono pushed back the start of practice. Old Forge suspended winter sports until Dec. 14. Honesdale is awaiting a review of COVID-19 data in Wayne County and approval from its school board, which meets Wednesday. Montrose also needs approval from its board, which meets Tuesday.
All teams need 15 days of practice with one day off in seven before a competition against another school can be played.
Required wearing of a mask during competition is the biggest difference between winter and fall sports.
“The one thing that’s evident to me is that anybody who thinks that kids should be playing basketball with masks on doesn’t understand the nature of the game,” Scranton Prep girls basketball coach Bob Beviglia said. “I’m constantly having to watch their faces, you know, to see if their eyes get glassy or, you know, their faces get too red.
“I think it’s dangerous. I gotta be honest with you, I think it’s dangerous and their legs go very quickly because they’re not getting the oxygen that they should get.
“I think that the rule needs to be rethought and rethought quickly.”
Far from ideal, it’s the way it is, at least for now.
“It doesn’t make it easy, especially when you’re really sweaty, but you deal with it,” returning All-Region wrestler and West co-captain Cam Butka said as the team went through their sprints, box jumps and somersaults. “There’s not really much you can do. You’ve got to follow guidelines and stay safe, or else we’re not going to have a season.”
The wrestling season is tentatively scheduled to start Jan. 6. COVID-19 concerns may force teams to pause activity before or during the season. The postseason will look different as tournaments are limited to eight wrestlers in each weight class. With the uncertainty, the Invaders focus on controlling what they can control.
“I don’t think you could really prepare with the COVID because everything changes day-to-day,” West Scranton coach Paul Fox said. “We’ve been going about it just like we do every year. I told these guys this season’s going to be a little different, but we have to do what we’ve done in the past. We have to take it like it’s going to be a regular season, even though we know it’s not now.”
Teams also will endure changes the coronavirus didn’t cause as weight classes dropped from 14 to 13 (106, 113, 120, 126, 132, 138, 145, 152, 160, 172, 189, 215, 285) per team. The rule change directly affects Butka, who wrestled primarily at 195 pounds last season.
“At first, I was pretty disappointed about it because if I could have made 195, I would have been a solid 195-pounder,” Butka said. “Now I’m weighing in at 208, 209. I’m trying to put on a little more pounds, but I’m starting to think that as the season goes I’m going to lose a little bit more. So maybe I’ll be weighing around a little above 200 when the actual season starts. We’ll just see how it goes.”
Whenever the Invaders can step on the mat for competition, they’ll be ready.
“We just have to keep conditioning and training hard and try to get back to normal,” returning first-team coaches all-star and co-captain Austin Fashouer said.
Scranton Prep is following league mask rules, but Beviglia is strongly opposed to forcing players to wear them.
“The kids are the kids. They come and work hard and they do the things that they’re supposed to do, but I just think that it’s nuts to make kids try to play basketball with a mask on,” Beviglia said. “I love when people say that they want to stick to the science. The science says that it’s not transmitted in athletic competition. I just think that anyone who has an ounce of sense when you watch kids exerting themselves on the basketball court and going up and down and doing the things that we ask our kids to do, I think you’re putting them in a dangerous situation.”
While Scranton Prep opened its team tryouts, the Classics also are trying to refocus on the undefeated season that left them with unfinished business, one of three teams, with Dunmore and Susquehanna, whose season was cut short in March by the coronavirus pandemic three wins from a state title.
“I said to the kids, we’ve won 41 straight games in the league and we have to play with a chip on our shoulder from Jan. 4 through the rest of the league, because even though, you know, you go 27-0, now there’s still things left to prove,” Beviglia said. “And as good as that group was last year, I feel like when I watch them, that there’s the potential for us to be better, because we’re bigger and stronger and more mature.
“Kids like Lizzie Neville and Maria Belardi are not sophomores anymore, they’re juniors, and I feel like we have some kids who played on the jayvee team last year who are ready to take a big step forward. I feel like we have a chance to be better. But we still go back to the motto we had last year which was one bad hour. All it takes is one bad hour to end your season or to stop you from getting the goals that you want to achieve. And we hold to that. They did it last year and I hope they do it again. No matter who we played they brought it, and I would expect with kids like (Rachael) Rose and (Cecelia) Collins and (Maggie) Mills and (Meredith) Purcell that that will continue.”
Riverside’s girls would like to be the next team to make noise on a statewide level, and their first abnormal step also came Friday.
“It is one baby step at a time,” Lady Vikes coach Jack Mekilo said. “We had a good first day. We were very diligent in keeping everybody separated. And we got through it just fine. It was different, but at the same time it was nice to be back at the gym.”
The regimen was hardly what Mekilo has put his players through in 12 prior seasons.
“We are wearing masks the whole time that we’re in the gym, the whole time that we’re in the school,” Mekilo said. “So right off the bat, how are you going to condition with a mask on? That presents its own challenges right there by itself, so we’re not worried about that right now. We think our kids are in good shape and we have a lot of them. We think our depth can help us.
“We just wanted to get in, get a practice under our belts. We know we have to go slow and we’re doing really individual stuff now. Because what we want to do is, you know, we want to go forward safely and we understand that we have time. We have a veteran team and I thought they handled it really well today.”
Having an all-upperclassmen team lessens some of the challenges facing every team, including the two-week delay to the start of practice.
“There is no doubt I would feel behind if we had a much younger team than we do,” Mekilo said. “That’s one of our advantages right now. It’s not going to be normal, so we are really focused on keeping things very simple and being really sound fundamentally because that’s what it’s gonna take. It’s not going to be normal, and we have to understand that and just try to be simple and sound. Everything is simplified and that has its advantages, because it’s gonna allow our talent to take over and that’s what we want to do anyway. So, it’s going about it a different way to hopefully get to the same end where we have a lot of talented kids and we want them to go out and make plays.
“Our first focus is keep everybody healthy and get our 15 practices in, and that’ll qualify us to play games as soon as possible. So, we’re in the same boat as everybody else, and we’re just trying to do things a little bit better than everybody else is doing them.”
At Mid Valley, players, wearing masks, dove to the floor for loose balls, battled for rebounds and exhausted themselves during a full-court layup drill.
Coach Mike Abda kept his young and inexperienced team moving and working.
“Our coaching staff and school are doing a great job with the protocols,” senior Tyler O’Connor said. “We are doing a great job. We are leading and showing that we can do it and hopefully we can get a season in.”
The Spartans, who have been conditioning through voluntary workouts, were energetic and practiced with intensity even after learning their season would not get started until at least Jan. 4.
And the players are willing to do whatever it takes to stay safe so they can tip off at that time.
“Wearing a mask, wearing a hazmat suit, it doesn’t matter,” O’Connor said. “We just want to play.”
At Valley View, which has a veteran team returning for Mike Kurpis, last year’s Times-Tribune Coach of the Year, the players were doing drills and, because of the likelihood of a long time before they play, found ways to keep things fresh with games within the practice.
“Everything starts at the beginning of practice when coach talks to us, then I say a few words, and we both just try to always be positive with all of the chaos in the world,” said Zack Kovalchik, a returning honorable mention Lackawanna Division I all-star. “We aren’t playing until Jan. 4, so I just tell the guys we have to keep the energy high all the time.
“It’s my last year, I know, and keep telling the younger guys this can be taken away really fast.”
At both practices, the players understood their seasons are day-to-day and they are appreciating the opportunity.
“We feel great and we are so thankful,” Mid Valley sophomore guard Danny Nemitz said. “We have to stay in a little bubble the best we can. We have to be a family. It’s just great to practice.
“It’s challenging, but we have to make sacrifices to play this game that we love.”
Athletes for the swim programs at Valley View and Lakeland don’t have a home pool to train, so they had their first official practice at the Carbondale YMCA.
“We have kids who swim on club teams, so we have them going to those practice, which gives us fewer athletes here and that gives us a better chance to spend with these kids while following the COVID-19 guidelines,” Valley View coach Rick Evans said. “I think the kids are happy. I told them that they need to be flexible this season because it can be taken away at any time. They have to follow the COVID procedures, wear their masks, be aware of their temperatures and really washing their hands.
“We all have to do whatever it takes to keep them as a team and their families safe.”
The swimmers don’t have to wear masks in the pool, but when they leave the water, they must go immediately to their travel bag for a towel to dry off and then wear the mask on the deck.
“We have been conditioning for two weeks and we are wearing masks all the time,” Valley View sophomore Lily Nemeth said. “It’s nice to be starting a season after seeing in the fall, the starting and stopping. Now we are finally in the pool, so that is refreshing.”
Nemeth is a returning All-Region performer who won a silver medal in the 100-yard freestyle in 54.21 seconds and she does feel behind with her training, but is thankful to be in the pool.
“We are going to do our best,” Nemeth said. “We have to always give it 120% because we never know what is going to happen. We are catching up and we are going to keep doing as much as we can to be ready for a season.”
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