Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Winter Sprint: Thoughts From A Season Worth The Wait

Well, that was fun. Unexpected, but fun.

It's the beginning of April. Ten weeks ago, any thought of a scholastic basketball season in New York seemed like not much more than a pipe dream. Fast forward to now, and we made it through some sort of a season. Not everyone had an opportunity to play - various schools & a couple leagues shut it down, and all of NYC was left in the cold - but the overwhelming majority in upstate NY were at least able to get a few games in.

It's not completely over yet, at least at the time I'm typing this. Herkimer County, the last ones seated in upstate NY (first day of practice was March 1), have stretched their season through the first full week of April. However, everyone else is on to AAU/spring/fall II/things that aren't winter sports, and unless I hit one or two more Mohawk Valley games, I'm also onto club season. This season, albeit short, was well worth the wait for many reasons. From the breakout individual performances to youngsters getting a few weeks of valuable experience to a star-studded senior class riding out one more time, every night felt like it meant something in a season that wasn't guaranteed.

With the cooperation of many athletic administrators & coaches, I was able to stay pretty active in February & March and get to a decent amount of games. The 54 games I've been able to catch in person (46 in NY, 8 in PA) is a far cry from the usual 200-250 game winter haul that I'm used to - a shorter season and lack of neutral site games or events with several games at a single facility will chop that number down in a hurry. It was more than enough to see a lot, cover a lot, and learn a lot, though. Some thoughts on the winter sports sprint of 2021:

My first game of the winter - January 21 at Wyoming Valley West outside of Wilkes-Barre, PA. In the days following, NY allowed the go-ahead for winter sports as well.

- This probably shouldn't have come as a surprise given the upperclassman talent and the circumstances surrounding the weirdest offseason ever (hopefully), but this was the year of huge individual performances. The 2021 class in upstate NY is fantastic (more on that shortly), but it wasn't just the seniors as many of the youngbloods got in this kind of action too. You see it every year - the kids that play competitive AAU & work on their game throughout the year in various avenues always look like they're at another level to start the season. As the year progresses, it starts to even out a bit as athletes that maybe didn't have a basketball in their hands more than a handful of times during the offseason start to flourish as they have practices/games 5-6 days a week over a period of months. Well, this season wasn't a normal season, and the offseason certainly wasn't. The condensed season allowed less time for that to develop, and with the prolonged shutdown in general and continued shutdown for athletics in NY, opportunities to play any sport in a controlled environment were few & far between. Not only was there a divide between those that worked on basketball in the offseason & those that didn't, but in many instances, those that didn't also weren't as active as usual because of the overall shutdown. To an extent, that set the stage for this winter. Those that I saw in late summer & fall - whether it was at AAU tournaments out of state, my events, at workouts in their area, an outdoor practice, or just hooping in the park - were generally the ones killing it on the hardwood in February & March.

- About that 2021 class... I said all the way back in 2017 when they were 8th graders that this may be as good of a class as I get the opportunity to see. They lived up to that & then some, and I'm so glad that the vast majority of these seniors were able to get another opportunity to compete for their high schools. Jim Schiltz put together a good article for The Daily Gazette about the growth of Section II girls' basketball over the years and the amount of seniors headed to Division I programs. That number has risen to 8 Section II graduates - 9 when including Rhaymi Porter, who transferred to Wilbraham & Monson in the NEPSAC after her first couple years at Scotia-Glenville - but there were other regions in the same boat with exceptional 2021 classes. When factoring in all sections that are unmistakably upstate/western NY (Sections 2-7 & 9) along with an additional couple from those sections that went the prep route, the total number of 'scholarship level' commits - Division I or II - is currently 50 from the 2021 class (29 D1, 21 D2). If including Section 1, which can be upstate or downstate depending on location and who you ask, tack on at least another 7 Division I & 2 Division II kids that I'm aware of (to make it 36 & 23, respectively). Keep in mind that this is with a global pandemic affecting the recruitment of many of them. Due to lack of visibility (D1 college coaches in a prolonged dead period) and the NCAA blanket waiver for current athletes, there were girls that would've likely had a few D1 offers in previous classes/other situations that didn't get them with the current climate & situation. When factoring Division III bound players, the total number of upstate New York girls moving on to play collegiate basketball next year will likely be in the 150-200 range. Sometimes there's high-end quality at the top of the class. Sometimes there's great depth. In the short time I've been doing this (6-7 years), there hasn't been both - not like this. We may look back at 2021 as a generational class, and I'm glad I was able to witness their growth.

- Necessity is the mother of invention... or in this case, necessity is the mother of using 21st century technology in the 21st century. If there's one thing that I hope & pray that we bring forward through the back end of the pandemic and an eventual return to 'normal', it's the ability & willingness for school districts to stream games. I was able to catch a few dozen games in person, but for as many as I saw in the gym, I was able to catch every bit of that on my computer screen from the couch. Obviously, the hoop junkies love it - they're able to have all the games at their fingertips. The ease of access has also been a huge benefit for me over the last couple months as well. I'm able to cover games in different ways - in the gym is always best, but something is better than nothing - and the ability to have a sample set at your fingertips to evaluate a player is such a commodity. Even through the spring & summer, when I get a couple free hours, I'll pull up someone's YouTube page or go through NFHS Network archives to watch an interesting matchup that I didn't get to see or watch some players that I would like to see more of. As long as schools keep presenting this as an option, I'll keep plugging the heck out of it. I'd love for #ViewsFromTheCouch to continue to be a thing... let's keep the streaming options going!

Me on many occasions, except my stomach is much larger, I thankfully have more hair, and my coffee is iced. Views from the couch!

- I was probably in a different position than most people as I was able to see firsthand how the 'return to play' played out across the state instead of in one particular area or region. It was very interesting to see how it was handled by region. The first day of games, February 8, I was in Monroe County (Rochester area - Section V). They had two spectators per player from the first day. There were entire regions that never even got to a point where spectators were allowed. More often than not, sections/regions started the year a little tighter & loosened restrictions slightly as the season progressed. That wasn't necessarily the case throughout. To my understanding, Section 9, whose season was the shortest (ended February 28), never allowed media. On the other end of the state, I would walk into a Section 6 game and see players competing without masks. I'm not here to pass any judgment on anyone for any decisions that were made on any end of the spectrum. As someone that was able to watch it progress in person from Jamestown to Plattsburgh, I just thought it was interesting how the dynamic was so different from region to region.

- Getting any sort of season in was obviously a positive thing and much better than the alternative. However, I want to give a special shoutout to the regions that found a way to make some sort of culminating activity work. In 'Far West Regional' country, Sections 5 & 6, that meant a traditional sectional playoff (albeit condensed to 8 teams in each assigned class). In Section 1, it was a playoff grouped mainly by county. The Suburban Council in Section 2 had a league playoff in the last week, and the MVAC in Section 7 just completed their league finals. Although I'm not familiar with the details, I think Long Island - or at least certain schools on the island - had something as well. Even in the Suburban Council league playoffs, the 'win or you're done' format brought out the most competitive sides of the players involved, and it was an added bonus for anyone involved to get a taste of the playoff atmosphere again.

Fan cutouts meant even with no spectators in the gym, you never know who was watching. Here, a young Magic Johnson takes in a game at Canandaigua.

- This is a 'thinking out loud' moment as we knew from very early on that this would be limited to daydreaming, but it would've been great to see the kind of matchups that may have ensued if we had a NYSPHSAA state playoff this year. I play everything as down the middle as possible, but most years, there are clear favorites at the NYSPHSAA level in most classes. Not this year. In my opinion, only Class C would've had a legitimate clear favorite with Cambridge, though other regions had their tough squads and fellow Class C & Wasaren League foe Greenwich gave them some good battles this winter. Every other class? Buckle up. A Shen/Ursuline matchup in Class AA would've been worth the price of whatever admission was. The Far West regional alone would've been a doozy in Class A with Pittsford Mendon taking on Amherst or Hamburg (or in an alternate universe where all their varsity kids weren't quarantined for sectionals, maybe Will South would have something to say). Throw in someone like Averill Park, if they were to make it out of Section 2 once again, and the As would've had some battles in March. Section 1 had depth in the Bs once again, but Jackie Piddock is still doing her thing at South Jefferson (Section 3) and Waverly (Section 4) may have been the best Class B team I was able to see in person this year... open once again. And the Ds may have actually brought a couple of the most competitive HVCC games. The 3/10 regional pocket had a few of this year's strongest D teams, and one of them (defending S3 champ Brookfield) didn't even get the chance to play. In Section 4, three of last year's four semifinalists also didn't get to play due to their leagues shutting down winter sports, and South Kortright, Stamford, & Cherry Valley would've been right back in it. Franklin - who was ready to step into that category among the best - was able to get some games in. I got the chance to see Elba out of Section 5, and they were as good as any D that I mentioned. Again, all talk & up for debate, but state championship weekend would've been pretty fun. Maybe I should try to get some of those teams together for a makeshift weekend 'state' tournament? Hmm...

- With the strength of the 2021 class, I guess I could do this with a few different teams, but I don't think anyone had quite what Cambridge did in their seniors. Two Division I signees that, among many other accolades, earned the selected McDAAG nominations. Another that's moving on to play ball at the D3 level & another that also potentially could. Another that could be a college basketball player without question, but found her college ticket in crew, which she'll go to Stanford to do (she opted out this season, but with a normal offseason & sectional/state competition, I imagine she would've played). This is a great class at even the most prominent AA contenders. Cambridge is a Class C school. They won the NYSPHSAA title two years ago with 4 sophomores & a freshman in the starting lineup and were well on their way to another one last year. I'm sorry to any other Class C school - trust me, I'm not dismissing you in any way - but my feeling is that the only 'C' that could've stopped them was COVID. I've always felt that this was really a generational team at the small school level, and it was good to see them get another run, no matter how limited it may have been.

- I saw many people thanking school academic/athletic administrators and anyone in power for allowing this basketball season to happen. 100% warranted; it was a mad rush to accomplish a great deal of planning and constant fluidity in an ever-changing environment. To put together the foundation & infrastructure to complete the season was a challenge that was successfully completed, which I know I'm thankful for. I don't see many people praising the athletes though, and I think they deserve it... so here it is. We asked the kids to go from 0 to 100 in a moment's notice. They did that. I know of many teams that played upwards of 14-16 games in a 4-5 week stretch, something comparable to a full exposure AAU schedule in July - just without the March-June to physically & mentally prepare for it. They did that. We asked them to do it with masks. They did that. We asked them to be even more careful than normal because one positive COVID test could shut down half of a season. Some asked their players to limit their time or just stay away from peers outside of the basketball team. They did that. I saw social media posts from administrators about 'kids, this is on you now'. Message received. They did that. In fact, I heard of more shutdowns happening because of positive tests from adults than athletes. Girls, shoutout to all of you. You're SO much stronger & more resilient than we were ever asked to be at that age. This wouldn't have happened without you.

Socially distant benches were the norm this year, and except for some of Section 6, masks for players were the standard in NY too. For Anna Lee's sake, we'll say this shot went in.

- It's probably not fair to single out the level of hospitality of certain people over others, but with the extra work that it took to get into every gym this winter (contacts with athletic directors, coaches, someone's mom/dad, superintendents, whoever would reply to me), it was a loud reminder that I've been lucky enough to get in the good graces & build relationships with some fantastic people. So many people went above & beyond, from coaches going the extra mile with their ADs to ensure I get a reply, coaches that put me in under their spectator allotment when media technically wasn't allowed, ADs that showed Southern hospitality in the Northeast. It may not have been all gravy; my overall response rate from athletic directors was maybe 40% at best, I also got my share of 'no' responses (to all of those, I understand, this year was different). I even had an AD lie to me about allowing media in (said they weren't allowing media in, then I saw two separate outlets covering the game in person - I won't name them, but I also won't forget that). But looking back, the positive certainly outweighed the negative. From meals after Towanda (PA) games with coach Rob Gentile, being allowed extra time in the Norwich school building to get some work done, the last-minute hospitality of Depew AD Bob Skoczylas when I was stuck on a closed interstate and had to change my plans on the fly... there will be plenty of experiences that I won't forget this winter, and there are countless people to thank for allowing this season to be an active & successful one.

- I bought a new car in mid-July with a whole 1.6 miles on it. With the late summer/fall travel mixed with riding all over creation the last couple months, I just surpassed 36,000 miles by the end of March. Accepting all sponsorships from gas stations/companies, car dealerships, auto mechanics... I mean, anyone really!

Great to see familiar faces in unfamiliar gyms. On this day, it was a chance meeting with Jackson Lawrence (left), up & coming sports journalist and the man behind @Section3Basket1 on Twitter, in Towanda (PA). Masks up! 

A special thank you to the schools that allowed me in your gyms to cover a game (or games) this season, and especially to each school's coach, athletic director, and/or whoever my point of contact to gain approval may have been. Those schools include:

Section 2 - Albany Academy for Girls, Amsterdam, Averill Park (x 2), Cambridge, Duanesburg, Guilderland (x 2), Mayfield, Mechanicville, Niskayuna, Saratoga Springs, Schenectady, Shaker, Shenendehowa

Section 3 - Copenhagen, General Brown, Herkimer, Little Falls, Vernon-Verona-Sherrill, West Canada Valley

Section 4 - Elmira, Horseheads, Norwich, Union-Endicott, Vestal, Watkins Glen

Section 5 - Bishop Kearney (x 2), Canandaigua (x 2), Elba, Fairport, Honeoye Falls-Lima, Hornell, Pittsford Sutherland, South Seneca, Waterloo

Section 6 & MMA - Amherst, Depew (x 2), Eden, Hamburg, Southwestern, St. Mary's - Lancaster

Section 7 - Northeastern Clinton

Pennsylvania - Dunmore, Holy Cross, Northwest Area, Scranton, Scranton Prep, Towanda (x 2), Wyoming Valley West

Maybe I'll sneak another Herkimer County game in, but at this point, it's pretty much a wrap. Thanks to everyone for making this shortened season what it was. Already looking forward to next season, hopefully a full one... but first, the AAU circuit. Hopefully I'll see you at a practice, a tournament, or perhaps even one of my events!

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