Fall high school sports fast approaching

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By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News

Naugatuck football players practice Aug. 16, the first official day of conditioning practice, on the turf field at Naugatuck High School. -STEVEN VALENTI/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

The fall high school sports season — a relatively normal one, hopefully — is almost here. Football teams already have started practice, and everyone else begins Thursday. Here’s a look at what’s happening with the gridiron, COVID-19 and golf (yes, golf).

The new football coaches at Woodland and Naugatuck agreed: It’s time to take it slowly.

The football season began Aug. 12 with the new three-day organized team activities session, followed by non-contact conditioning workouts through Aug. 20. Full-contact practices began Aug. 21.

Woodland coach Joe Lato and Naugatuck coach Chris Anderson saw OTAs as an introduction to football for most players and preparation for full-scale practice.

“The goal was to try to introduce things in a small way so that we could get more reps when we were actually at [full-contact] practice,” Lato said. “You obviously want to install your base offense and defense, but we’re trying not to give them anything they can’t handle.”

“It’s setting the standard of expectations — being respectful, showing up and being on time,” Anderson said.

The coaches also acknowledged the challenge posed by last fall’s cancelled season. For the most part, the only players who have varsity experience are seniors — and they were sophomores the last time they played a competitive game. Nobody has practiced in nearly two years.

“We’re not going to assume kids know how to get into a stance,” Anderson said. “We’ll be teaching basic football.”

“We don’t assume they know anything,” Lato agreed. “You know, ‘These are hash marks. These are the uprights. A down block is not knocking someone over.’ I’m just assuming they don’t know anything about football. As far as play installation, we don’t have a lot in at this point. We’re going to stick to mastering the basics. We’re going as slow as I’ve ever gone in my career, but I’m not frustrated. We have a great group of kids and I’m having a lot of fun.”

CIAC mandates indoor masks, promotes vaccines: Despite hopes that masks would be a thing of the past in sports, the CIAC is telling indoor fall athletes that they’ll have to wear them again.

In its fall sports COVID-19 guidelines released Aug. 12, the CIAC confirmed that it would follow the Connecticut Department of Public Health’s policy of mandating masks while indoors. Soon after the CIAC’s announcement, Gov. Ned Lamont confirmed that masks would be mandatory in schools until at least Sept. 30.

Those who are fully vaccinated will not have to quarantine after a close contact with a COVID-positive person as long as they remain asymptomatic and wear a mask until receiving a negative test, or waiting 14 days. Those who are unvaccinated with a close contact, or anyone who experiences COVID symptoms, will have to quarantine for at least 10 days.

The CIAC is encouraging high school students to be vaccinated through a campaign called “Stay in the Game.” Officials expressed the importance of keeping high school sports going uninterrupted by getting vaccinated.

“Athletics are an integral part of a whole school community and student development,” state Department of Education acting Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said at an Aug. 17 event in New Britain. “We want our students to stay on the field and in the classroom this fall.”

Naugatuck head football coach Chris Anderson runs practice Aug. 16, the first official day of conditioning practice, on the turf field at Naugatuck High School. -STEVEN VALENTI/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Although state officials, including Lamont, said they were not planning on issuing a vaccine mandate to participate in high school sports, they said youth vaccinations will be important to fall sports’ full return.

“A year ago, we were having difficult conversations on how to safely engage in sports,” DPH acting Commissioner Deidre Gifford echoed at the New Britain event. “We didn’t have the tools to adequately protect the health and safety of our athletes. Thankfully this year we have an excellent tool, the COVID-19 vaccine will pave our way back to normal sports.”

Earlier in August, CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini declared that the CIAC’s intention is to hold full seasons and state tournaments this fall. Lato is optimistic that student-athletes will do what it takes to stay on the field.

“The kids are taking care of themselves,” Lato said. “It’s all part of everyone’s DNA right now.”

NVL sticks with spring golf: After years of clamoring by high school golf coaches, the CIAC is allowing leagues to choose to sponsor boys golf in the fall or spring.

Several leagues, including the Naugatuck Valley League, the Southern Connecticut Conference and the Eastern Connecticut Conference, elected to keep golf in the spring for now, while others, including the Berkshire League, the South-West Conference, the Central Connecticut Conference and the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference, decided to switch to the fall.

The CIAC will sponsor two state tournaments this fall and three in the spring.

The Republican-American contributed to this article.