Since April, the Salamanca boys basketball team has done all it can remotely to prepare for this winter.

Coach Adam Bennett started holding Zoom meetings in those early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, as schools were fully closed. It might not have been ideal, but even away from the court, the Warriors could install offenses and defenses and teach fundamentals, all in hopes of playing a season that’s still in limbo.

“With our younger guys, we watch a lot of film with our experienced guys coming back,” Bennett said. “It’s just so different because we all feel there’s a chance that we could be working toward something. My heart goes out to our seniors. We have five seniors this year and they’re good players and they’ve been working toward this moment for a long time. So we’ve just got to take it one day at a time, try to be as good as we can be in terms of adhering to the state guidance when we’re in and out of school and just go from there.”

Regarding the pandemic, Bennett’s told his players to “control what we can control,” from social distancing to classwork, to making sure they’re eligible to play if and when a season happens.

“It’s really hard because as a coach, your players look to you for guidance and right now the reality is none of us coaches have much guidance,” he said.

BASKETBALL teams received a glimmer of hope in late September, when New York State issued guidance allowing open gyms in schools. But within a month of getting back on the court for two open gyms a week, Salamanca paused its in-person workouts.

“(The state’s) guidance said open gyms were acceptable in basketball as long as there wasn’t any physical contact and there was social distancing and screening,” Bennett said. “So we’ve had a few open gyms for our guys; it’s more of an individual skill development workout time for our players where they’re screened, they’re masked up and then we’re able to do some individual skill work. Right now with where the cases are at, we made the decision to not meet in person and that’s just a constant evaluation within the district and adhering to the state guidelines.”

Bennett holds out hope after this week’s announcement from the New York State Public High School Athletic Association pushing back high-risk sports (including basketball, wrestling, ice hockey and competitive cheerleading) from a Nov. 30 start date to Jan. 4. Lower-risk sports remain on the state’s schedule for Nov. 30, though Section 6 has already delayed those sports by two weeks.

“YOU TRY TO stay optimistic and I am encouraged that at least they gave a target date in January to start by,” Bennett said. “All of us in the coaching community thought that it was going to be pretty difficult to start any kind of practice or organized activity during this time of the year, not only with COVID on the rise locally and nationally but also now you’re introducing the flu and cold and all these different new procedures with how to deal with any kind of symptoms. So I’m going to remain optimistic and hope that once January comes, there’ll be better numbers and our guys are going to have the opportunity to play at least at some point.

“But we’re concerned obviously about the health and the safety of our players and everyone out there. If we can find a way to safely play, that’s just what our focus is right now.”

Bennett serves as a CCAA East I league representative on the Section 6 boys basketball committee, but said even that committee doesn’t have much information on what a season might look like. That will depend on the NYSPHSAA receiving guidance from the state government.

“Until they receive that guidance, it’s really impossible to make any decisions in terms of scheduling,” Bennett said. “We’re fairly confident that if we were able to play at some point, masks would most likely be a recommendation and a guideline from the state as long as players could physically handle it. There have been plenty of rumors about the fact that there certainly wouldn’t be full gyms and there will be restrictions in place, whether it’s two fans per player or even no fans at all. There are so many things that get thrown out there, but there’s nothing concrete and we haven’t heard anything concrete about what the season will actually entail.”

ELLICOTTVILLE COACH and athletic director Dave McCann, who also serves on the Section 6 committee, said he hasn’t heard much about how a season might unfold. But based on the fall, it could be a short one.

“No one has put out too much information yet until we get further approval,” he said. “I think … even though we have a new date, everyone’s still waiting and hoping that we could get the go-ahead to have a season, but if we do we’re probably looking at games from the middle of January until probably late February, kind of mirrored with what we saw in the fall. If I were guessing, that’s all kind of projecting what we went through in the fall and what we saw with a quick playoffs.

“They haven’t canceled the regional and state championships yet. Hopefully all goes well and we can at least get to a sectional final and crown sectional champions at the very least.”

McCann said the NYSPHSAA’s high-risk sport delay wasn’t shocking, but he hopes setting a new date gives time to make a plan for the season.

“I was kind of anticipating that we would get a little bit later start than Nov. 30,” McCann said. “Looking at what’s going around in the area right now and a Nov. 30 start date, as it got closer, was not looking as promising. So it’s encouraging from the standpoint of we now have a date to circle on the calendar and hope for the best and stay optimistic. I’m going to try to meet with my kids after the Thanksgiving break virtually and lay out what we know and what we have to watch for in the coming weeks.”

The Eagles return 11 players from last year’s squad, including eight seniors.

“AT THIS POINT, getting them whatever games we can get them would be a blessing,” McCann acknowledged.

Even though the team hasn’t met in person, McCann said he still keeps up with his players in their limited visits to the classroom through the hybrid teaching model. He doesn’t have many concerns about their readiness if the season can start in January

“They played quite a bit in the park during the summer ... kind of getting together on their own and playing, and a lot of them that have hoops at their homes have been shooting quite a bit,” he said. “So I think they’re anxious, if we get that green light, I don’t have many worries about them coming in ready to play. I’m going to have a team with a lot of guys coming back and they’re going to be chomping at the bit to get a senior season in and finish strong.”

(Salamanca Press sports editor Sam Wilson may be contacted at swilson@oleantimesherald.com)

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