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NY cancels winter high school championships

SARANAC LAKE — It’s not really a scenario similar to the movie Groundhog Day, but it certainly feels like it.

In that 1993 film, its star Bill Murray keeps reliving the same day over and over again as a reporter covering the annual Feb. 2 tradition in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

In this state, another “we’ve been here before” situation has played out for the second year in a row, as the New York State Public High School Athletic Association decided to cancel the 2021 winter sports state playoffs and championship tournaments due to coronavirus concerns.

When the scope of the pandemic first became apparent in early March, NYSPHSAA quickly put a halt to all the 2020 winter state playoff tourneys, including those that were already underway. This time around, the action was taken well in advance of seasons that may or may not even take place for certain sports, as NYSPHSAA made the announcement Friday, Dec. 11 that there will be no state playoffs for winter sports.

In addition, sports deemed to be high-risk, which in the North Country include basketball, ice hockey and wrestling at some schools, saw the beginnings of their possible upcoming seasons delayed again, moving from Jan. 4 to an indefinite start date.

NYSPHSAA said the decisions were made following input from member schools and the executive directors from the 11 athletic sections across the state.

“When examining the feasibility of Winter State Championships, it became apparent that travel and overnight accommodations would create a unique challenge for our member schools,” NYSPHSAA Executive Director Robert Zayas said in a press release. “At this time, we must prioritize maximizing student participation without a focus on championship events.”

As to when higher-risk winter sports seasons may begin, NYSPHAA stated it was waiting for further guidelines to be established by the state.

“No surpirse here,” Lake Placid Central School District Director of Athletics John Burdick said. “I think almost all the ADs up here had in mind that state championships weren’t going to happen.”

Burdick said canceling state winter tournaments could actually turn out to be a benefit because if sports like basketball do end up getting off the ground on a more local level, their late-starting seasons could possibly be extended beyond what would have been the dates planned for state playoff contests.

“Let’s say basketball begins in mid-February, the season could continue later if there is no state schedule to stick to,” Burdick said, adding he is doubtful interscholastic seasons for higher-risk sports will wind up happening. “At this point, I’m just hoping for a regular spring season, and I think that can happen because those sports are outdoors.”

“I’m not surprised at all given our numbers lately,” echoed Saranac Lake Central School District Director of Athletics Eric Bennett. “In order to host or attend state championships, you have to have hotel rooms. With the current situation, that’s just not something you can count on.”

While high-risk sports are now in a holding pattern, lower-risk high school sports are taking place in the North Country. Although districts in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid don’t participate in bowling, there are six Section VII schools that do, and those seasons are underway in what the state considering to be a lower-risk activity.

Saranac Lake and Lake Placid are beginning ski seasons in alpine and Nordic. They are the only two districts in Section VII that currently have varsity teams in those sports and are hopeful competitions can take place later this winter. Burdick said the Blue Bombers began their Nordic ski training at Mount Van Hoevenberg two weeks ago, took last week off due to a coronavirus case in the district, and planned to return to practice this past Monday when in-person learning returns.

Bennett said as long as school doesn’t revert to remote learning only, the Red Storm alpine and Nordic skiers plan to begin training when there is enough snow on the ground, which he thinks will be sometime after the holiday break.

Saranac Lake’s indoor track team is also beginning to train, and in a strange twist, Bennett said athletes in that program will be practicing outdoors as the high school gymnasium remains closed. And it’s doubtful whether the team will be able to compete, as the status of only venue for indoor track in Section VII — SUNY Plattsburgh’s field house — remains in flux.

“I terms of track, this could very likely be about a chance for the kids to be social and work out,” Bennett said. “I’m not super confident they will be able to compete at all, but at this point, anything to get the kids up and active is a good thing. I’m glad that opportunity exists for them.”