Students, coaches take COVID-19 precautions as Catholic high school sports returns
“It feels amazing to actually be able to play this year,” Notre Dame senior field hockey goalie Brennan Pinto says of the fall season. Staff photo
After months of uncertainty, Catholic high school athletes who play fall sports in the Diocese of Trenton are taking the field again.
Countless students lost their spring campaigns and faced altered summer practices due to COVID-19, but the good news came in August that their sports seasons would take place.
“It feels amazing to actually be able to play this year,” Notre Dame senior field hockey goalie Brennan Pinto said. “Last year, I was extremely upset to miss my junior year of lacrosse and even more upset wondering if I would even get a senior season for field hockey.”
Photo Gallery: Notre Dame field hockey practice
Photo Gallery: RBC football practice
St. Rose girls soccer player Jenna DeFazio was going through those same fears.
“Senior year is a big deal for our team,” the Belmar high school student said. “We do a bunch of different things to honor the seniors at our big Senior Day celebration. Since freshman year, I have been looking forward to finally celebrating my senior year with the team, and to think that could have been taken away from all of us was very nerve-wracking.
“The news that we would actually be starting tryouts and real practice was a total relief,” she continued. “Even though it’s not going to be like it was the past years, it’s still very exciting to get out and play for St. Rose for my final year.”
It is indeed quite different as teams prepare to open their regular seasons in late September and early October. Protocols in place require: daily COVID-19 pre-screenings and temperature checks; coaches to wear masks at all times; and players to wear masks entering and leaving the practice field. Other precautions include no sharing of equipment or water bottles – which, student-athletes say – is a small price to pay.
With pre-season beginning in mid-September, football was an obvious concern with players in close contact, but Red Bank Catholic coach Mike Lange noted things are going well.
“We’re definitely doing less tackling and less full pads,” Lange said. “We’re working smart. After practice, the coaches are spraying [disinfecting] everything. We keep the spacing and distancing on point. I think our kids are getting accustomed to it.”
RBC did not make the final decision to play until late August.
“We were practicing and collectively praying in the background,” Lange said. “I didn’t know how I was going to handle telling them if it wasn’t a go. All that made practice in the summer very edgy because of the unknown. You try to spin it [positively] to the kids while not even knowing yourself.”
Field hockey coach Cheryl Harris of Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, said the teams remained hopeful and optimistic over the summer.
“We knew nothing was for sure, so we just prayed and did our part,” she said. “We had the greatest turnout this summer for our workouts. It was obvious they wanted to get back to some type of social interaction and normalcy.”
Practice, however, doesn’t look the same.
“I pay more attention to spacing in drills and warm-ups,” Harris said. “ We need to keep the girls six feet apart, especially when they are waiting their turn to engage in an activity. Thankfully, this summer coach [John] McKenna helped train them to be conscious of the distancing in drills.”
Pinto said the restrictions don’t affect her play once the action starts. “I’ve been cautious about COVID, but when I’m in the goal, the main thing going through my mind is stopping the ball and making the save. I also know we are outside and that our coaches do everything they can to keep us safe.”
Ken Oliver, Donovan Catholic High School’s boys soccer coach, said he was pleasantly surprised when he heard there would be a fall sports season. His practice sessions include social distancing and more spacing during set-up drills and water breaks.
“Our players are very mature, and we have some strong leaders on our team,” Oliver said of the Toms River school athletes. “The boys have handled everything really well so far and have adapted nicely. I think they’re just happy to be together as a team and excited that the season is going to take place.
“We asked them to commit to following the protocols and to focus on doing everything that they can to stay healthy,” he said. “I feel like they’re highly motivated to play this season, and they seem to understand their role and responsibility as student-athletes in making that happen during this pandemic.”
St. Rose girls’ soccer coach Zack Savacool noted that the summer sessions were non-contact.
“It was odd being unable to run any contact drills, but I have been coaching for several years and there are a lot of technical and fitness drills I’ve done in that time that I was able to utilize this summer,” he said, admitting those drills were a bit tedious. Now, he said, the girls are “excited to get back on the field and finally just get to play.”
DeFazio agreed that the summer technical drills got somewhat monotonous but that things have changed for the better in the fall sessions. “Most practices now are all business. I think the team is just trying to make this season as normal as possible.”