When the CIAC at last made public its plan for playing high school sports in the fall, Wilbur Cross football coach John Acquavita’s phone blew up with texts from his players.
“They were texting us by the dozen,” Acquavita said. “The kids were excited and praying for something to go on. I’m excited about any plan. This is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.”
Though the CIAC’s plan pushed back the start of the season to Sept. 24, and cut the season nearly in half, the decision to play lifted a burden off high school football players across Connecticut.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit in late March, ending the winter sports playoff season and eliminating a spring season, 2020 fall athletes had been told by their coaches to prepare.
Football players weight-trained for months. They were allowed to gather for conditioning groups for the last three weeks. But it wasn’t until Friday’s announcement that they could actually see tangible evidence of a season ahead.
Acquavita said he’d seen double the amount of players participating in team weight training and practices this summer, so much that he had to turn many away as his program attempted to maintain safe workouts. “That’s what hit me hard,” he said. “I was like, ohh, it’s going to be a crushing blow if these kids are told they won’t be able to play.”
Football coaches around the state said they were generally pleased with the CIAC’s decision to play, saying the lack of sports in many players lives could have had a severe impact on their well-being.
“They’ve been through a lot,” said Steve Filippone, who’s returning to the sidelines as Hand-Madison’s head coach this fall. “They’ve been isolated, unable to be with their peers, seeing some of their parents get laid off. That’s a heavy load for an adolescent. This gives them a purpose and hope for something. And hope is is very short supply in this country right now.”
The decision followed a delay and a night of uncertainty following comments made by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and an advisor to Gov. Ned Lamont, who said during a Thursday press conference he did not think contact sports should be played at all.
“The feeling when we left practice yesterday was like, we’re done. And to get this today just feels so much better,” Stafford/Somers/East Windsor co-op coach Brian Mazzone said.
“To me, I think it shows a lot of courage,” Filippone said. “I’m not the biggest fan of all the things the CIAC has done. But the leadership has shown a lot of courage, a lot of foresight of putting the student-athlete first.
“The fact they took that stand and said, ‘We’re going to trust these people to do it the right way and give them an opportunity to play,’ is great. …They’re taking a calculated risk, that’s for sure. But I think this is going to work out.”
Danbury coach Augustine Tieri, who has been vocal on social media about his desire for a return this fall, also commended the CIAC for deciding to get kids back on the field.
“I’m just really thankful in the face of everything that is going on that they have the courage to come out and try and implement this,” he said. “Our state has done a very good job doing the things to get to this point.”
Since late-April’s peak, Connecticut’s coronavirus transmission and death rate has been among the country’s best. But there have been some signs of an uptick in cases. Earlier this week, Connecticut’s transmission rate rose slightly above one, which means that the virus might be spreading again, even if the number of new cases remain low.
The CIAC has warned that its plan is “fluid and in a perpetual state of evaluation” and coaches say they understand the season isn’t guaranteed if their programs don’t practice proper safety measures, collectively.
To that end, Acquavita said he’s concerned that CIAC is merely punting on making a decision on playing a season.
“To me, if you’re pushing a season back, it means deep down you don’t want to play,” he said. “Something about the plan says you’re either waiting for Massachusetts and New Jersey to close (their seasons) before you, so you don’t have to be the first one. I’m a little worried about that. I’m thinking, why not accelerate it and start early?
“On the flip side, maybe they want to see how schools open and get settled first — which is going to be chaos — before they worry about games and bussing.”
While there aren’t any testing mandates, CIAC’s practice guidelines require players fill out a daily questionnaire. If they answer yes to any of the questions, they are to be sent home.
“We had a couple kids answer yes multiple days in a row and shut them down,” Mazzone said. “(We told them to) go home and they can’t come back without a negative COVID test.”
Danbury’s Tieri said his program also takes the temperatures of its players.
“(We do) all the thing we can possibly do under the circumstances,” he said.
Hillhouse coach Reggie Lytle, who welcomed the idea of playing a season, said is more important than the health and safety of his players and, by extension, the coaches and families. He said he’s invited New Haven Health Director Maritza Bond out to practice to ensure compliance.
But coaches say the true test is how many players and their families will continue to practice proper prevention and social distancing when it’s time to go home.
Filippone says he reminds his players every day after practice.
“I’m 64 years old and I’ve had some underlying health conditions,” he said. ” I have to trust 50 kids every day. I tell them, if I get sick, I’m going to get really sick. And the only place I’m going to get sick is here because I’m not doing anything else. So, you’ve got to think beyond yourself if you want to have a football season.”
Tieri said he believes the kids collectively will do the right thing. “I think we have to give our kids more credit,” he said said. “They understand what is at stake, they understand the situation we are in.
“They have been living through this. They’re the ones that have the most to lose here. They take that very seriously. They know the protocols. They do what they are asked to do.”
There could be some troubling signs, however. Lamont’s office released a statement this week warning that outbreaks among Connecticut teenagers and young adults are on the rise.
An hour after the CIAC announced its plan, the New York Times, citing town officials, reported that some members of Greenwich’s football team were quarantined after a player tested positive during an outbreak among town youths.
Greenwich coach Anthony Morello said the infected player is doing well and seven players who were in his group have tested negative for the virus. Greenwich has since returned to regular practices, he said.
“This is a big test for us and for all programs right now,” Morello said. “There are a lot of group activities in every district. So to see how a program handles that adversity is going to be a big challenge for everybody this season.”
Coaches remain hopeful, if apprehensive.
“I pray,” Lytle said. “All I can do is pray that other coaches and players are doing the best they can. We’re rolling the dice, so to speak.”