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Mercury-Area winter sports squads return to practice

Phoenixville boys basketball players Will Allain, left, and Mike Memmo pose for a photo before the team's practice Tuesday. (Submitted)

Phoenixville’s boys basketball team completed its last day of tryouts Monday — an event usually reserved for late November.

Already delayed from years past, the Phantoms were in the midst of their tryout process Dec. 10 when Gov. Tom Wolf announced the suspension of in-person high school sports and extracurricular activities from Dec. 12-Jan. 4.

Wolf’s suspension of sports expired Monday and after a three-week pause, the Phantoms and many other area high school sports programs picked up where they left off back in early December.

“At first it was a little weird, and it didn’t feel normal,” Phoenixville senior Will Allain said. “I know most teams start over Thanksgiving break and that’s when they have their first few practices and tryouts and that’s how it is for us, so it was definitely weird to have it in January and in the new year. But once the ball started dribbling and once we started moving around, it was exciting. It was fun.”

While winter sports teams might have a few extra days off while high schools go on holiday break, practice and competition for most teams typically continues toward the end of the calendar year.

Concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, particularly during the holidays, caused Wolf to shut down in-person learning and activities in early December, making for an abnormal 20-day hiatus for high school sports during a time when area gyms and pools are often buzzing.

The return back to activities this week for athletes was welcome.

“It was really fun,” Owen J. Roberts junior girls basketball player Avery White said. “We were all glad to be back on the court. We did a lot of virtual workouts over the shutdown, but it was good to be back in the gym.”

“You could tell everyone was super excited and loud and vocal and talking,” Phoenixville senior boys basketball player Mike Memmo said. “It just felt good. Everyone needed that.”

 

The Pioneer Athletic Conference announced in Novemeber it would allow winter sports teams to begin practices after Nov. 30 with the intention of starting games Jan. 4. The first day of PAC games and meets is now scheduled for Jan. 14.

PAC schools will be playing league-only competition without a league postseason leading up to the district and state playoffs. Schools were able schedule up to three basketball games a week, two wrestling matches a week and one swim meet per week.

The PIAA recently made an exception to one of its practice rules allowing teams to compete once they’ve completed 10 practices, including any practices that took place before teams were shut down.

“We’re just easing into it,” Phoenixville boys basketball coach Eric Burnett said. “I know the games are right around the corner, but we feel lucky that we’re getting what we have so far. It’s just great to see the boys get back playing the sport they love.”

“We’re super excited, super focused and ready,” White said.”

Boyertown, originally on target to begin practices this week, announced Sunday that its high school teams would be starting a week late, beginning practice Jan. 11 and delaying its competition schedule.

Norristown’s athletic programs, which did not compete this fall unlike the rest of the PAC, are currently in a holding pattern, approved to start once Montgomery County’s COVID-19 positivity rate dips below a certain threshold.

 

The two schools are a reminder that even with teams back in the gym and in the pool this week, there is still a lot that’s not normal this winter.

Phoenixville’s basketball teams still hadn’t been able to begin scrimmaging as of Monday, participating in small groups drills and individual skillwork. Burnett said avoiding contact like high-fives has also been odd.

Swimming teams have split into two practice times with the boys team taking a slot and the girls team taking another. Upper Perkiomen swim coach Brien Kalnoski added that he didn’t anticipate Upper Perk having morning swim practices this season and his team might not have Saturday practices either.

“It’s a different type of process and procedures that we have in place now than we did last year, and they have handled it like troopers,” Kalnoski said. “It’s been a lot of change with the precautions and the safety procedures that we have to go through.”

“You’ve had to readjust,” he added. “I’ve had to rethink how we’re going to get them conditioned, get them ready for competition, do the things we need them to do, and I’m not the only one. … It’s just one of those years. We’re going to make due. We’re going to the best we can. We’re going to be as competitive as we can and like I said, hope for the best.”

Players and coaches tried to stay ready for this first week of practices during their three weeks away from each other. During the suspension of sports, teams used video calls to stay in touch.

Pope John Paul II’s boys basketball team —which had some experience with a shutdown last spring when its PIAA run was suspended and eventually cancelled — met via video daily, going over film, doing at-home workouts and similarly to the other teams just trying to keep in touch before resuming in-person practice Tuesday.

“Last year, it was so unexpected. When it happened we really didn’t know what to do at the time,” PJP senior Luke McCarthy said. “Now, since it happened again, it was really easy some of the things we were doing. Everyone pretty much bought in. Everyone in the program from varsity to freshmen would be on it. Obviously no one wants to be doing it over the computer, but just to see everyone putting in the work definitely feels good.”

Owen J. Roberts girls basketball coach Jeremy Mellon said he’d thought of some contingency plans while coaching football during the fall and seeing some other programs shutdown.

The Wildcats went over film, worked on skills like ball handling and shooting form drills and did workouts almost daily via video chat during their three weeks away.

“In the back of my mind we had a plan,” Mellon said. “We kind of felt inevitably it (a shutdown) would happen, so we had a plan in place. … Those things for us worked out really well as far as our planning and our execution and the girls were great being super prepared and ready for it.”

Athletes also had to find ways to stay in shape on their own during their three weeks off.

Kalnoski noted how difficult it is for swimmers to stay fit for competition without a pool. Some of his swimmers ran and biked for cardio, sometimes together when possible to do at a safe distance.

Allain said he was lucky enough to have some dumbbells to workout with at home and tried to get up shots in his driveway or at an outdoor hoop when possible, but the snow and rain along with the cold made it difficult to routinely get outside.

Memmo encouraged the Phantoms to find ways to keep working over the break, and Allain said the team looked sharp Monday.

“I’d keep up with everyone on the team,” Memmo said. “I’d text them, see how they’re doing, see if they wanted to go out for a run … see what they were doing to get better.

Finally back practicing, the hope now is to not have to not have to go through it all again.

“You’ve just gotta keep your head up and you have to go through it day-by-day,” Allain said.

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