With the winter sports season this December being the first official Virginia High School League (VHSL) season to kick off since last winter, the return to participation has been on every student athlete’s radar.
Recently, VHSL released a 2020-2021 Guidelines for Return to Participation Guide, which incorporates all rules and regulations VHSL has placed on specific sports to ensure the safety of athletes and coaches from the risk of COVID. As a result, both students and staff will be going through a unique experience this winter season.
“I am excited to have some normalcy,” sports coach Bonnie Taylor said. “Winter sports are not going to be normal but it’s closer to normal than we’ve been since March. It’s a step in the right direction.”
Jefferson winter sports teams have been working to become compliant with all of these recommendations, but there are difficulties adjusting.
“Gymnastics relies on shared equipment, like one set of bars, and one beam,” senior Catie Granum, captain of the Varsity Gymnastics team, said. “Some of our equipment can’t be cleaned or else it can have a big impact on the athlete’s performance.”
One of the biggest differences between this year and last is the pace of the season. Due to shifting schedules, management and planning have dramatically changed.
“Usually, there’s a big slow down in pace around winter,” Taylor said. “It’s really crazy in the fall and once winter sports hit, everything slows down. This year, the winter is when things are going to pick up.”
The Jefferson Athletic Department is determining how to conduct sports activities while also maintaining the safety of the athletes and staff. Limited capacity practices and social distancing guidelines have been implemented. Consequently, sports teams are concerned about the potential dip in participation due to students’ and families’ safety concerns. In addition, some sports teams are worried that important information about sports has not been communicated effectively to students, especially the freshmen.
“I’m worried that the freshmen may not have gotten an opportunity to learn about track and gain interest because of all the canceled interest meetings and activities fairs,” Annika Topchy, Winter Track & Field captain, said.
However, student participation will ultimately depend on their family situation.
“I think that each family has to have a discussion and do what is best for them with COVID,” Jefferson’s athletic trainer, Heather Murphy, said. “I also think that there will have to be conversations about transportation and sacrifices that will have to be made to attend both virtual school and practices.”
Amidst all this uncertainty about the status of the upcoming season and decisions about participation, Jefferson teams nevertheless are working to ensure the safest and most successful season possible for student athletes, as some are moving practices to a virtual setting asynchronously.
“To prepare for new conditions, Coach Mark introduced us to a few online workouts and drills so that we can prepare for the season at home, doing the exercises on our own time,” senior Rakesh Pillai, Varsity Boys Basketball team member said. “Since we’re not allowed to use a gym or a court, we haven’t had any physical practices, though we have had a few ‘Chalk Talks,’ which are zoom meetings mainly for underclassmen.”
For some teams, coaches hold synchronous practices to create some sense of normalcy.
“Wrestling has been holding Zoom workouts once a week led by our coach, Coach Phillips,” Niko Economos, Wrestling Captain, said. “It’s a good way to stay connected and to recruit new wrestlers.”
Other teams have even moved towards holding in-person practices at TJ that follow the VHSL Guidelines. Over this school year, there have been limited opportunities for social interactions among Jefferson students. Many are starting winter sports to establish and strengthen relationships during these times.
“I am really looking forward to the start of winter track,” sophomore Sophie King said. “It will be great to see people in person and meet new people.”
To make the most of the limits on activities, some teams, such as Swim & Dive, have used time during the summer to focus on other aspects of the sport.
“We got in contact with our merch vendor and our coach to start the process of setting up the merch for the season since it takes the longest to arrive with the customization and different sizes and all,” senior Meghna Sharma, Varsity Swim & Dive captain, said.
Even with the option for VHSL sports to return to in-person practices with restrictions, there is no guarantee for sports to be held in the 2020-2021 school year, potentially becoming canceled altogether due to certain concerns.
“Wrestling pretty much has a guarantee of transmission with COVID-19 if you are wrestling with someone for a long period of time,” Economos said.
Some would not be surprised if the season were canceled and would give up trying to continue with a strict winter season, opting for more casual ways to keep up with teammates and stay active.
“Safety is definitely more important than basketball, so for the varsity boys, at least, we will definitely link up every now and then to hoop at local courts,” Pillai said.
With no definitive statement on whether or not winter sports will be carried out, students and coaches must try and stay as updated as possible.
“Information changes every day, so we try to stay current and share those changes with everyone, doing our best to make sure that on December 7th and 14th everyone is ready to begin,” Murphy said. “We highly encourage people to read what we send in emails, put on Instagram, and information from our website, which will help control misinformation.
However, among the difficulties and accomodations, there have been benefits to the COVID-19 adjusted season.
“One of the major upsides is that we have not been having all the injuries that were used to seeing,” Taylor said. “A lot of times we have to do evaluations, triage, and rehabilitation. We have been able to focus on more positive things.”
With the new restrictions and abnormal sports schedule, Jefferson students are still finding ways to persevere and reach their goals. The obstacles are not preventing students from making the most of this unprecedented situation.
“What matters is mindset,” junior Ignacio Toro said. “As long as you’re pushing yourself each practice, there is always room for improvement.”