Drew Stover couldn’t wait to get back in the gym.
The Upper Dublin senior center could barely contain his enthusiasm as he sat through virtual class on Monday afternoon with the payoff of a basketball practice on the other end. After three weeks of state-mandated COVID-19 mitigation efforts lifted at 8 a.m. Monday morning, plenty of local high school basketball players had a similar sentiment.
A start-and-stop preseason is back on, as area boys and girls basketball teams returned to practice this week with the start of competition close at hand.
“For me at least, it felt great, I was pumped all day,” Stover, an All-SOL selection last year, said. “I could barely stay in my seat during online school, that’s how much I was looking forward to basketball. We had a really good practice, everyone was energetic and wanted to get back in there.”
During a Dec. 22 meeting, the PIAA reduced the number of practices required before competition from 15 to 10 for this season. Any practices a team completed prior to the Dec. 12 shutdown are counted toward that number. Per an earlier PIAA edict, any team that had completed 10 practices prior to Dec. 12 would still have to complete four sessions before resuming competition.
Area teams got back to work Monday with various amounts of completed practices, some closer to starting play than others. Friday would be the earliest date any team in the PIAA could resume competition, and some local teams may be ready to play by this coming weekend.
With schedules already having to be altered several times, players are preparing for a fluid approach once competition begins.
“The challenge we’re going to face is in the turnarounds,” Stover said. “I could see us having a game, one day of practice then have another game dropped on us. I hope that happens because it means we’re playing more games, but we’ll have limited time to prepare so we’ll have to be super-focused up.”
Teams like the Upper Dublin boys are bringing in a lot of new faces while others, such as the Plymouth Whitemarsh girls, have a lot of continuity. PW senior co-captain Anna McTamney said while the Colonials have plenty of chemistry, it was still tough navigating the handful of multiple-week layoffs this preseason.
“It was great being back (Monday), we expected everyone to be a little rusty but I thought we all did pretty well,” McTamney, a USciences recruit, said. “For what we have as of now, which looks like a short season, I think we can do great things.
“From the last shutdown, there weren’t any gyms to go in and it’s cold outside, so everyone had to adjust to the weather if you wanted to do anything to keep working and make it less of a hard transition when we were able to come back.”
McTamney, who returns with co-captains Gabby Cooper and Kaitlyn Flanagan to lead the Colonials, said her teammates did a good job of working out on their own or in small groups while also motivating each other.
“I worked out with Coop and Flan over the break a few times, but the other girls, I hadn’t seen them so it did feel like a first day of practice again,” McTamney said. “It ended up being a pretty hard practice, not everyone was in the best of shape but it was just great having everyone in the same boat again and work to prepare ourselves for what we have coming in the future.”
Three weeks without a formal practice is a long time, but the Pennridge boys basketball team had little trouble staying active. Senior Luke Yoder said the team had a pretty substantial group chat, scheduled Zoom workouts and even managed to get a couple pick-up games together.
Pennridge, the SOL tournament champion and a state playoff team last year, may be replacing several starters and key reserves, but everyone in the program knows the expectations coach Dean Behrens has for them.
“If we were to play a game tomorrow, we feel like we’d be ready,” Yoder said. “We helped each other out getting through the tough times, going on and off, it was difficult but everybody was there for each other. The guys will ask for help with plays or what they can do better.”
In the few parts of the state that were able to fit in a game prior to the shutdown, players wearing facemasks during competition was a common sight. Unlike the fall, where competition was mainly outdoors, the closer quarters of winter sports have called for additional measures.
Many local teams are adapted to masked competition on top of trying to shake off three weeks of rust and prepare for a rapidly approaching season. North Penn senior Alli Lindsay said it’s been as much of a challenge as it was trying to stay in shape during the shutdown.
“We’ve been scrimmaging with them on, so we have to start feeling it out,” Lindsay, a point guard, said. “We have to see how it affects our stamina, when we’re talking to each other, how loud we have to be so we can communicate because that’s the biggest thing for us.”
McTamney said the masks aren’t a favorite of anyone on her team, but added it’s something they’ll get used to and manage. Yoder said he and his teammates went through their Zoom workouts masked up as a breaking in period to get used to wearing them.
“That’s how we’re going to have to play throughout the season, so it was a chance to get comfortable with them,” Yoder said. “It’s been three weeks since we’ve been together as a whole team, things are going to be different but it felt great to back with each other and practicing.”
Zoom workouts, which have been a mainstay since last spring, were a bridge for many teams. Souderton’s girls basketball team had a couple alumni like Tori Dowd and Alana Cardona lead workouts while Lindsay said the North Penn athletic trainers developed a really strong program for the players to do both as a group and on their own.
Lindsay is the sole returning starter from the Knights’ state playoff squad last season and preached positivity and chemistry as the most pivotal things for her team to focus on. The guard, who was as excited as anyone else to be back in the gym, played soccer in the fall and is ready for a potentially disjointed schedule this winter.
“Every day is a new rule, a new change, new everything, we know even the morning before a game there’s a chance it could get cancelled,” Lindsay said. “It’s been crazy, but we’re focused on staying positive through it all. Who knows, the next day could be the one everything changes but we have to keep our heads up, keep playing and if we stay positive, hopefully we’ll be able to play another game and go to another practice.”
Teams in the Philadelphia Catholic League have yet to start formal practices. The roughly half of the league within city limits will remain shut down until at least Jan. 15 while the PCL teams in surrounding counties may begin practices on Jan. 9. As of now, Jan. 29 is the scheduled start of PCL league play.
Like in the fall, the PIAA has condensed the size of its state championships with only district champions moving on. District 1 has not yet presented playoffs brackets for the six classifications but in the fall, fewer teams qualified than usual.
Monday’s return to the gym was a major first step, but what every player is really after is a day with a game scheduled.
“Nothing’s set in stone, but just getting to that first game is big for us,” Lindsay said.
“You never know what’s going to happen, you just have to focus on what the next day brings,” Yoder said. “We’re looking forward to a season, whether we only get a couple games in or as many as we can so we’re taking it one day at a time.”