Season of Masks

Covid Regulation Implementation for Basketball and other Indoor Sports.

Outdoor sports last fall were either a great success or an experimental mess, depending on who you ask. And now, a new, indoor season has begun. Across Colorado, Season B sports officially started January 25th, including sports like girls swimming and diving, ice hockey, boys wrestling, and, for their first-ever sanctioned season, girls wrestling. The season also includes girls’ and boys’ basketball. All of these sports are acting as a sort of trial run for indoor sports: an arguably risky experiment amid the still-raging Covid-19 pandemic. In mid-January, our very own Eaglecrest wrestling team had to quarantine due to a potential outbreak. 

“I was completely optimistic,” said wrestler Aaron Frimpong. “I was so ready because everything was coming into line….and then they hit us with the ‘the entire team has to quarantine’. After that, my mentality kind of shifted. Like, do I want to do this? Do I risk it?” Frimpong has a love for the sport that makes him hard-pressed to give up wrestling, but said that the quarantine has been tough on his academics and mentality. The quarantine itself came after several wrestlers tested positive before the season started. 

In a letter sent out to parents on January 22, the school and the district addressed the noticeable uptick in cases around the school, saying, “The majority of the new cases are related to the EHS wrestling team and activities that occurred outside of school. While close contact exposure occurred at wrestling practice, we have also identified significant community spread – gatherings at wrestlers’ homes, club tournaments, and air travel that was not connected to EHS team events.” The entire team was thus quarantined due to their close contact. The wrestling teams have now rejoined the season, but nevertheless, their quarantine looms over the season, creating anxiety and apprehension.

“I feel bad for those wrestling kids. They got hit hard, but maybe they get it over with now and they can have a season afterward,” said Jarris Krapcha, Eaglecrest’s head boys basketball coach. “But there’s a return to play protocol that has to be done, which is pretty extensive, so it’s more than just ‘hey I had COVID, I’m gonna quarantine’. There’s another step after that.” According to district guidelines, anyone on the team who tests positive or comes in close contact with someone who tests positive must quarantine for 10 days and go through a 7-day gradual return process. For basketball, those 17 days account for a third of their season.

In the past few weeks, the boys basketball team has had two separate quarantines and is now 1-1 after playing only two games. Meanwhile, the girls basketball team, though they have had two positive cases -neither of which posed an exposure risk to other players- have played four games. The threat of quarantine thus motivates players to avoid testing positive. It threatens to ruin their season through it’s an all-or-nothing policy. 

“I wish the state -and CHSAA and all that- would decide: are they gonna get all in and let us play basketball like it’s supposed to be played or not have a season? But they came up with this in-between thing that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me,” said Krapcha. It’s a conflict that every sport has been forced to reckon with, a product of entirely new rules.

#14 taking a moment to breathe during the girls basketball game on January 27. (Josiah Dunkin)

Seeing as Season B is the first to have indoor sports, CHSAA guidelines are likewise firm, if experimental. In their “2021 Basketball Bulletin”, CHSAA emphasizes that play is a privilege, rather than a right. 

“We need to protect opportunities for all students and programs with the many uncertainties, so a failure to uphold all safety requirements for the season may result in the removal of an individual or team from season participation,” read the guidelines. This seems to be the right approach for such an unknown, unexplored situation, but how it translates to reality is another question altogether. CHSAA does have reach, but it’s limited, as the recent wrestling outbreak has proved. And in the end, school coaches and officials are the ones who do the actual implementation and policing.

“Everyone has to wear a mask, including players while they play. And then our season was shortened from 23 games to 14 games,” said Krapcha. “And normally our roster is 15 and now it’s 12. Normally you can have as many coaches as you want and now we’re only allowed to have three coaches. So there are some significant restrictions.” All of these restrictions, outlined by CHSAA and enforced primarily by the district and schools themselves, have greatly affected players and coaches alike. 

Initially, one of the biggest changes was the no-fans rule. Jennifer Vidal, a P.E. teacher and girls basketball coach, said that was one of the most difficult restrictions, particularly as a parent herself. A livestream was set up by Nest Network and media teacher Robby Gabrielli so that parents could watch the games, even if through a screen. 

In the past couple of weeks, regulations have shifted to allow two fans per athlete for home teams and one fan per athlete for visiting teams. The shortened time frame for the season, however, has still posed challenges.

“I’m excited but also nervous,” said varsity girls basketball player Haley Esser. “COVID has made it so we have less prep time. We normally have months to get in shape and prepare for the season but now we only have three weeks. And only one of those weeks we’re allowed contact play.” The shortened season is a double-edged sword. Despite the difficulties it brings, Vidal acknowledges that the shortening of the season will also make it less grueling, which she thinks is appropriate for this year and its extenuating circumstances.

Haley Esser (#4) and Nia Mckenzie (#14) wear masks while playing Smoky Hill on January 27, 2021. (Brendan Belfield)

As coaches, both Krapcha and Vidal note that their coaching has had to change with the restrictions. Vidal had to ease the team into conditioning because of the mandated masks, and she says that because of the skewed season, there’s going to be less variety and opportunity this season. 

“One thing that we have noticed is that in some of the other schools, their enrollment in their teams is low. So for example, my JV girls are not playing because Smoky Hill doesn’t even have a JV team,” Vidal said of their game on January 27. So the effects of Covid on sports that we’ve been seeing are certainly not confined to the red brick walls of Eaglecrest. They’ve caused change for everyone.

“It’s been a big adjustment from the standpoint that I’m not used to practicing with only 11 kids,” Krapcha said. “And it was a challenge for me personally to figure out how to segment practice so they weren’t dog tired at the end. We have to get them in shape, but at the same time, they don’t have subs. So I had to rethink how I structured practice.” Practices have greatly changed as a result of the new rules. But the changes, naturally become even more apparent in the higher-stakes atmosphere of games. Head girls basketball coach Robby Gabrielli says games haven’t been drastically altered, though.

“Games have been weird because the benches are socially distanced and that makes coaching a little bit more challenging,” said Gabrielli. “There are new guidelines for when we can come to the gym and how we can warm up. Other than those procedural things and watching subs a little closer because of masks, the games have been mostly normal to me.” The biggest change to practices and games seems to be the required masks, though, as the coaches and players alike explained. 

“As a player playing in it, it obviously sucks because it’s harder to breathe and catch your breath,” Josh Epperson, a senior on the boys’ basketball team, said of the mandated masks. Undoubtedly, wearing masks makes play more difficult for both players and coaches, who, according to Vidal, often revert to hand signs in order to clarify communication. And for Vidal, it’s an inconvenience she is absolutely willing to endure. 

“I’ve had Covid and it was absolutely horrible. It took me about a month to get over it, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. And I’m a very healthy person: I’m a phys-ed teacher and I work out for a living. And it hit me hard,” Vidal said. “So yeah, I think if masks are it, then masks are it. I feel like if that’s what’s gonna help us stop it, then I’m all about it.” Vidal, who in addition to being the girls’ basketball coach also teaches P.E. classes, says that she has had very little pushback –and little to no complaints, even– from either students or her players on mask-wearing. 

“Covid has really demonstrated to kids that it’s real. It’s affected their families or they’ve gotten sick, so I think their buy-in there is ‘whatever you want us to do to come to school, we’re going to do it’,” Vidal said, explaining that the restrictions haven’t affected them too much yet. She says that she feels comfortable having the basketball season within the guidelines that have been set. And for many, this is the tact they’ve taken: trusting the regulations and enjoying the season they have, despite its many changes.

Natalie Soto (#2), a sophomore, makes a play during one of the first girls basketball games this season with the new Covid regulations. (Josiah Dunkin)

The changes are, of course, controversial. They’ve made sports seasons possible, but there are questions of how helpful the alterations are. Especially for seniors, this season is their last high school season. The determination and excitement a final season would normally bring is now missing, shortened and heavily restricted. For them, the regulations have only brought disappointment and frustration, as they have for Krapcha too. 

“I have a hard time with the masks. I wish they would not make them wear them while they play,” Krapcha said. In his opinion, the reasoning behind some of the district and CHSAA guidelines is either unclear or doesn’t make complete sense in the first place. 

“For example, with the masks, it’s like they’re treating someone that goes to the gym and 24 Hour Fitness the same as a 16-year-old kid who’s playing a highly competitive sport. And the masks are going to affect the kid that’s playing a highly competitive sport a little bit more, just because we’re asking these kids to put forth a lot more effort than you would if you were just at the gym,” Krapcha said. The standards, to him, are not quite fair, particularly considering new issues the mask mandates bring up.

“If a kid in our practice has Covid, is a mask going to prevent him from spreading to other people? I mean, he’s touching these kids; the whole practice, everyone’s breathing extremely heavily,” Krapcha said. “It’s hard for me to sit here and coach basketball and police how they’re wearing their mask.” The conflict that Covid restrictions have brought is something we, as a community, a school, and a district, have not entirely resolved. Epperson, who also ran cross country in the fall, saw the masks as an understandable obstacle. 

“In basketball, we have more contact, so that’s why they have a higher regulation or more mask enforcing as we did in cross country,” Epperson said. For cross country –one of the first, and thus, experimental, sports to have a season– mask-wearing was heavily enforced by coaches and officials alike, though runners were not required to wear a mask while racing. So perhaps its only fitting that basketball, an indoor sport, is just as heavily regulated –if not more so. But it seems that mask-wearing, among other regulations, hasn’t been entirely equitable. 

“I don’t really understand why we’re the only sport that has to wear them the other sports don’t,” Krapcha said. “They didn’t have to in football, they didn’t have to in softball, they don’t have to in hockey.” His observations have not gone unnoticed by others. Inevitably, the differences between sports have become glaringly obvious over the months, although Vidal has a different opinion on it.

“I’m not feeling like there’s a chip on my shoulder because basketball right now we’re not allowing, allowing parents to come in because this is inside and football was outside,” Vidal said. “I do think that is different.” And certainly, in the case of football and softball, the lack of a mask mandate could be attributed to the fact that these sports were played outdoors. There are clear differences between sports and yes, all of us are still trying to figure out how to deal with Covid. Football, however, still managed to have a brush with Covid, forcing many players to quarantine.

Football players stand on the field at a game in October 2020 without mask restrictions while playing. Allowed 3 spectators per player, fans are interspersed on bleachers behind them.

It’s entirely possible that the new rule is because CHSAA and the district have learned that restrictions for fall sports weren’t effective enough. But in that case, Krapcha wonders, why is ice hockey -an indoor contact sport with striking similarities to basketball- allowed to forego masks during competition? In this case, the reason behind the differences in mask mandates remains unclear.

“My only thought or theory behind it is that basketball is a more visible sport,” Krapcha said. “There are people outside of just the players and the parents that care about high school basketball and I think the health department wants to make it look good and have the kids in masks.” Politics and appeasing parents and players likely do play a role in Covid restrictions in the end, as they do in many areas. According to CHSAA, health information and concerns for safety are the primary reasons, though.

Eaglecrest girls basketball players Jaedyn Martin (#24), a senior, and sophomores Nia Mckenzie (#14) and Laci Roffle (#5) keep their masks on while playing against Smoky Hill on January 27th, 2021, kicking off the indoor sports season. (Brendan Belfield)

Even if health and safety concerns weren’t the most significant force driving the regulations, they are the reasons we should, in good conscience, comply. As players, coaches, fans, and even uninvolved bystanders, each of us are responsible for doing our part to keep Covid contained. Considering we don’t know the consequences of indoor sports yet, the rules are there to help and hopefully prevent further harm.

The controversy over the continuation of indoor sports -represented well through the struggle with basketball and masks- isn’t something easily resolved. It won’t go away easily, but perhaps it shouldn’t. The pandemic, as we’ve experienced, has unprecedented effects, and it’s greatly affected sports seasons. But it’s also created a conversation that will hopefully push us toward productive and effective change as we grapple with the continuing Covid crisis. For now, there is still positivity among the uncertainty, though. 

“At the end of the day, I’m happy that they get to play. I wish it was a little bit different but I think that once the ball is tipped and once you’re in practice, you kind of forget about the masks and you just play,” said Krapcha. The sports season is just beginning, and over the coming months, we will see how it plays out.

“Stay tuned,” Epperson says.