Adobe Stock photo | As of Nov. 16, high school athletes in North Carolina who play indoor sports must wear masks at all times.
by MEREDITH BARKLEY
When Shaena Riddles and her Northwest High basketball teammates finally meet an opponent in early January they'll inhabit a world they couldn't have imagined a year ago.
There'll be no jump balls to open games. Athletes will all be wearing face masks. They'll have had their temperatures checked and logged beforehand. They'll be sitting a good distance apart while on the bench. And only 25 fans will be there to witness it all.
"It's definitely different," said Riddles, whose team just started practice last week. Normally they'd have been playing since mid-November.
Then there's the shroud of uncertainty that hangs over everything.
"It can change next week," said her coach, Haley Hackett.
That's happened several times since last summer as the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) and Guilford County Schools scrambled to find a balance between allowing sports activities and ensuring safety in a constantly evolving COVID-19 environment.
"This is nothing that anyone has really ever dealt with" before, said Brian Thomas, Northern Guilford's athletics director. "There's just so many unknowns in what the lasting effects are."
At this point volleyball, cross country and swim seasons are underway. Basketball and cheerleading are practicing. Mens soccer and mens and womens lacrosse are in skill development four days a week. Football is in conditioning workouts two days a week.
The NCHSAA has set delayed conditioning, skill development, practice and game schedules for high school sports this year. But Guilford County, concerned over COVID outbreaks, is one of a handful that has opted to delay them further.
Some coaches worry those delays in the county could affect their teams' competitiveness against teams from other parts of the state where practices have been ongoing for some time. Teams at some schools have been working out since summer.
"We're trying to work around those restrictions," said Kevin Wallace, Northwest's head football coach. "We're grateful we only have one out-of-county game this year. It's going to be hard for some Guilford County schools to compete."
Northern's football coach Erik Westberg agreed, saying, "We're definitely behind the rest of the state."
Although football season normally signals the beginning of fall, full football practices won't officially begin until early February, with first games to be played Feb. 26.
"It's going to be a little different playing in February," said Northern defensive back Amaah Achina, a senior. "I just hope we have a season. These kids want it bad."
Many athletes at both schools have been working out on their own to get ready, coaches say. And some, noted Northwest's athletics director Mike Everett, have continued to gain team experience through club sports.
"A lot of sports have been practicing in their club seasons," he said. "So many of our athletes have been playing in some form through club teams. It's still different from coming back and playing with their high school friends."
Everyone has high hopes for an effective vaccine that will make this whole nightmare go away. They take some comfort that the first vaccines are beginning distribution this week.
"That's going to make a positive impact," Northern's Thomas said. "Hopefully we'll get back to some sort of normalcy."