“Definitely didn’t think it would be like this,” he said.
Even for schools that are established, this winter sports season, if it gets off the ground, will have no precedent. That much was widely evident Monday as several school districts across the D.C. area began tryouts or practice.
What should have been a joyous day for athletes and coaches — the end of a months-long wait — arrived with complicated emotions at a fraught time for high school athletics. Every week, it seems, case numbers rise, restrictions change and plans are dashed. On Monday morning, D.C. announced it was prohibiting high school athletics until February. Other local school districts have also shown hesitance or disapproval for the idea of resuming sports.
But for the programs that were able to gather on this chilly Monday afternoon, there was a mix of elation and uncertainty.
“It’s exciting,” Washington said before his freshmen hit the court for tryouts. “A little weird, but exciting.”
At Lightridge, Monday was the first day for defense. Students interested in basketball had been meeting for a few weeks, holding distanced workouts on the football field or running simple drills with their own basketballs. But no defense was allowed. The arrival of tryouts meant they could play something that more closely resembles the sport.
“It was strange, being out there on the football field for basketball,” junior Jordan Dorsey said. “There wasn’t much we could get done, especially as a new program.”
It will be an abbreviated getting-to-know-you period. After three days of tryouts, the Lightning will have 12 days before its first scheduled game. That means nine days to determine starters, install an offense, develop a defense and maybe construct the beginnings of a culture. It will be a challenge, but this school year has already been full of those.
“Other schools have everything set already; they already have a chemistry,” junior Quentin Ware said. “They’re way ahead of us. So just coming to tryouts today really has me excited to get with my teammates and catch up to the competition.”
An hour south in Prince William County, the return of basketball amounted to a completely familiar pastime taking place against a truly strange backdrop, with nothing normal but the ball and the hoops. After nine months away since his team’s previous gathering, Woodbridge girls’ coach Darius Wilson said even that backdrop was a welcome sight.
“I kind of thought we were going to be in there looking at each other,” he said. “But it flowed. It moved.”
Ten girls came out for basketball at Woodbridge, and all 10 will make the varsity team. (There will be no junior varsity.) Twenty-two were in the program last season, eight of them seniors. At least five players, Wilson said, are opting not to participate until they gauge whether they feel safe to do so.
The Vikings had to spray the basketballs Monday and share them only in pods of five, but they could run offensive sets and passing drills. Prince William County has imposed social distancing guidelines, in addition to those mandated by the state high school athletic association, that prevented Woodbridge from any contact drills.
If Wilson’s team had a game scheduled for that night, it would not have been able to play. But his hope was that the county would loosen those guidelines before the season opener against Osbourn Park on Dec. 22. Little about that game would be normal, either, but Wilson and his team of 10 would be more than happy to play anyway.
Of course, caution trumps everything in this climate.
When he woke up on the first day of his 37th season as a varsity girls’ basketball coach, Oakton’s Fred Priester recalled feeling a knot in his chest — not the normal first-day butterflies, but a knot.
Without any experience dealing with a season like this one, he was apprehensive about how practice would go. He has one player who won’t play if the opposing team won’t wear masks and another who will start quarantining later this week in preparation for a visit from her grandfather over Christmas.
Priester, who is 13 wins shy of tying the state’s all-time wins record in girls’ basketball, said his priorities have shifted. “I want to start really slow,” he said. “If we’re behind, we’re behind.”
In Maryland’s Calvert County, Huntingtown indoor track coach Valerie Harrington practiced social distancing by standing on the bleachers and talking through a blue megaphone while her athletes worked out on the track. The 60 students at the team’s first practice were split into seven groups, which maintained six feet from one another, so the megaphone was Harrington’s strategy to get messages across to her scattered squad.
“Everyone in the parking lot can probably hear me,” she said.
There are poles on the fence surrounding Huntingtown’s outdoor track, each of which are about six feet apart from one another. Each athlete was stationed at a pole between breaks Monday to hydrate and keep their belongings. Huntingtown also provided throwers their own shot put for the season and used hand sanitizer wipes each time an athlete or coach touched a hurdle.
Within the D.C. area, Calvert was the only county in Maryland that began winter sports practices Monday as coronavirus cases spike in the state. Maryland’s athletic association said counties are required to participate within the state’s defined sports seasons, meaning some counties may miss the winter season, which ends Feb. 13. When winter sports competitions begin Jan. 4, Calvert County coaches hope to hold virtual meets in which every athlete runs a timed event on their school’s track and the results are compared.
Many teams gather at the conclusion of practice and shout a motivating word. At the end of Huntingtown’s practice Monday, each athlete stood at a pole around the fence and yelled, “Team!”
“All fall, they’ve been excited to be able to do this,” Harrington said. “It gives them an opportunity, and they don’t want to mess it up. They’re going to keep that mask on; they’re going to follow the rules to be able to run.”