After months of patiently waiting, both boys’ and girls’ Catholic high school basketball has returned. It may only be for a short time, but as the league’s coaches agree: Something is better than nothing.
The boys’ CHSAA is currently hosting a mini-tournament at Archbishop Stepinac H.S., White Plains, N.Y. For the girls, the GCHSAA reserved the past several weekends at Island Garden in West Hempstead, L.I., for a series of exhibition games to get the girls back on the court.
With the support of GCHSAA Executive Director Dom Vulpis and President Denise Hillig, JoAnn Arbitello-Pinnock, head varsity basketball coach at The Mary Louis Academy (TMLA), Jamaica Estates, organized the games while of course keeping everyone’s safety in mind.
“Throughout the months of COVID, the other coaches and I kept in contact, and we really wanted to make sure the girls – especially the seniors – had an opportunity to put on the uniform for one last time,” Arbitello-Pinnock said.
Just like the boys who are playing in Westchester, the girls had to find a location outside of New York City given the N.Y.C. Department of Health’s restrictions on high-risk indoor sports. Luckily, the folks at Island Garden were more than happy to welcome the GCHSAA teams.
All throughout the winter, the girls’ teams kept their skills sharp in hopes that approval for a return to play would come sooner rather than later. That call finally came, and the teams jumped at the opportunity to play some hoops.
“All our kids opted in; that’s how excited they were,” said Msgr. McClancy H.S., East Elmhurst, head varsity basketball coach Dewey Hopkins. “They were working in cohorts. We really could never get the entire team together. They did a lot on their own just to stay in shape in hopes that we would have a season.”
“Of course I was happy because we all have been working on our game individually, and when we got to come together, it was just unbelievable,” said Msgr. McClancy senior shooting guard Grace Kennedy.
Twelve varsity girls’ teams from the diocesan GCHSAA have been competing along with three additional teams from the Archdiocese of New York. The games might not have the same rivalry feel as they would during a normal GCHSAA playoff season, but in the COVID-19 landscape, it’s a victory just to see the student-athletes back on the floor.
“They were excited because they had been preparing since as early as September, whether it was individually or in a small group trying to train and prepare under the circumstances,” said Joe Harnischfeger, head varsity girls’ coach at Archbishop Molloy H.S., Briarwood. “I admire their perseverance. They were enthused and enjoyed the workouts as they tried to prepare as best they could.”
Rather than set this up as a road-to-the-championship-style tournament, the coaches agreed to have an exhibition series, since many student-athletes are currently playing other spring sports as well. In this way, the students – especially the seniors – who have waited so long to return to play would not have to choose only one sport.
As part of the series of games, each team played in a Senior Day game to recognize the commitment of their seniors over the past four years. Though it may have looked a bit different than a regular Senior Day, the schools and league still got the chance to wish their seniors well one last time.
“It’s such a blessing, especially since I really didn’t expect to have anything this season,” said Archbishop Molloy senior forward/center and team captain Maya Cwalina. “Honestly this was my favorite season of playing basketball because practicing and working out together during these uncertain times has made the team a lot closer and has allowed us to bond.”
The series of games has been contingent upon a number of safety protocols. Only two spectators per student-athlete are allowed in the gymnasium, with social distancing enforced. Once one game ends, everyone clears out and officials sanitize the benches and basketballs before the next team comes in with their fans. Spectators must wear masks, and even the players are encouraged to wear a mask if they’re able to tolerate it.
It’s been a tough year for the GCHSAA and especially TMLA. Last March, TMLA Athletic Director Joe Lewinger died at the age of 42 from COVID-19, sending shockwaves through the school community and the entire Catholic League. The school’s assistant basketball coach Dave Edwards also passed away last year at age 48. The recent games have served as a tribute to these men as well as all those lost to the coronavirus.
“I almost feel like this is a new beginning for us,” Arbitello-Pinnock said. “For the girls and the coaches, this is something mentally fulfilling. All of our coaches are very dedicated and miss being on the sidelines with their teams.
“The girls miss us too. They miss the excitement and competitiveness. I’m really excited for the entire league and girls’ basketball to be able to put our best foot forward to get out there again.”
Contact Jim Mancari via email at email@example.com.