As Bobby Hill and his Reservoir basketball teammates walked off the floor last March following an overtime loss against Atholton in the region finals, there were a mixture of emotions.
Pain was at the forefront, but as Hill recalls it, there was also a sense of resolve that he and the rest of the team’s underclassmen were going to come back this year and make amends.
“It was tough to go out the way we did, but we immediately turned our focus to this year. We started talking about getting into the gym together over the summer, how we were going to put in the work to get back to that game and win,” Hill said. “Obviously, at the time, we had no idea about the coronavirus or everything that was going to happen, but we kind of assumed there would eventually be a season. Even back in November, I was still pretty hopeful.”
On Wednesday, those hopes were officially dashed when the Howard County Public School System announced the cancellation of the 2020-21 winter athletic season.
For senior athletes like Hill, who was a first team All-County selection as a junior last winter, the news was somewhat expected after the season had already been postponed twice. It didn’t, however, lessen the blow.
“I had basically accepted that this was going to happen — mentally accepted it I guess — but when you see that it’s actually official it still hits different. Now it’s really over,” he said. “It’s tough knowing that I won’t step on the floor together as a team with those guys ever again.”
The news hit similarly hard for Oakland Mills girls basketball coach Walt Hagins, who had seen his girls get the opportunity to compete alongside one another during the Winatarian Outdoor Basketball League in the fall and begin developing a bond.
“There was a continuity and chemistry with this group that had gotten stronger, and I could sense an excitement from them during our virtual meetings in terms of trying to carry it into the season,” Hagins said. “And I think everyone knew that if we did play, there were going to have to be some modifications and precautions that were going to need to be taken, but in terms of getting a chance to play alongside one another all of that was going to be worth it.
“So yes, this was a blow today. I definitely understand why the decision was made, I’m not naïve to what’s going on, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.”
[ Howard County cancels high school winter athletics season ]
While Howard County announced the cancellation of in-person athletics, neighboring Carroll County conversely has made the decision to push forward. Wrestling began on Tuesday and basketball games were held Wednesday, marking the beginning of a winter schedule that is slated to run through Feb. 13.
Glenelg wrestling coach Matt Bichner said the timing of the news, coinciding with Carroll County starting, was difficult.
“It’s hard to ignore when you see a county that is really close in terms of proximity to Howard County and has similar numbers in some respects …and they are finding a way to make it work. That’s hard to explain to the kids,” Bichner said. “But I see the other side too. This is an unprecedented thing going on and those making the decisions are having to weigh a lot of different factors.”
Bichner added that he would have liked to at least had a chance to try and make things work.
“I think there is some level of risk with everything that you do in life and ultimately it’s up to everyone to manage that risk,” he said. “For me, I would have liked to see the parents and kids given the opportunity to decide if they wanted to compete. Let each family weigh the pros and cons and ultimately choose to opt in or opt out.”
Hagins said in terms of basketball, he has seen how things could work firsthand. Through his role as commissioner for the MD Lady Shooting Stars AAU program, he helped host indoor tournaments as recently as early December.
“It was different and it was a lot of work, but we were able to make it happen,” he said. “And I tell you what, to see the excitement on those kids’ faces to be able to be out there together playing a sport that they love … I would stay in the gym all day scrubbing and sanitizing if that’s what it took.”
Virtual meetings for winter athletes will continue through Feb. 13, according to the release by the Howard County school system. Coaches have been utilizing these weekly sessions for a couple months now to check in on players, provide a social connection tool and communicate training plans athletes can complete on their own.
As Howard junior girls basketball player Gabby Scott points out, though, pushing yourself during a pandemic is very different than being in a gym surrounded by teammates.
“Even if you have your parents there, a lot of it right now has to come from inside you. All that motivation you get from being around your coaches and teammates every day, that’s just not there right now,” said Scott, who made second team All-County last winter while helping the Lions to an undefeated 25-0 record. “You kind of have to change your internal mindset.”
Scott says she has been fortunate enough to have a private gym she can go to practice during the winter months. And, in some ways, she feels a little less pressure following a canceled junior season because she committed in the fall to play basketball at Towson University.
Players like Hill, however, were looking at this season as another potential chance to prove themselves in front of college coaches.
A 6-foot-6 wing player, Hill has attracted the attention of several college coaches but has yet to hook on with a college program.
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“I’ve put in a lot of work in terms of getting stronger and mentally working on my motor and energy, which are things college coaches have said that they wanted me to work on. It’s really hard to show how much I’ve improved without playing games, though,” Hill said. “I was hoping to have at least a little bit of the high school season to showcase myself. Now, I’ve got to look for other opportunities.”
Other competitive opportunities could materialize in different ways for different student-athletes.
The current plan in Howard County, should the metrics allow it, is for fall sports to begin practices on Feb. 13. Scott plans to play varsity soccer for a second straight year.
“Playing on a team of any kind right now, for me mentally, that would be huge,” she said.
Even for those students who aren’t multi-sport athletes, Bichner said maintaining a growth mindset is critical. And that’s where he feels coaches can continue making an impact while in a virtual setting.
“Keeping the kids positive right now is the biggest thing. We have been and will continue to preach to our guys about using this year to grow in some fashion,” he said. “If your parents are willing to seek out opportunities to get you on a mat, then great. If that’s not possible, then work on your conditioning. Just find a way to get better within the confines of what you are able to do.
“As tough as this is, we have to help pick these guys up and keep them moving forward.”