Coaches excited to finally start winter sports season

NILES — Usually by mid-February, area high school teams are chasing conference and division championships with an eye on the upcoming state tournaments. This year, things have looked different due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, boys and girls basketball teams, along with wrestling and competitive cheer teams can begin their 2020-21 seasons after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was adjusting their guidelines to allow for winter contact sports to begin.

Coaches and athletic directors alike were thrilled with the announcement and got right to work in revising their winter sports schedules once again to get as many competition dates as possible before the state tournaments begin in March.

Josh Hood’s Brandywine’s girls basketball team is scheduled to kick off the season at home Tuesday against River Valley. (Leader file photo)

“I think it’s about time that the kids are allowed to compete again,” said Dowagiac coach Danum Hunt, whose team missed out on its chance to win a district title last March when the winter sports season was suspended and ultimately canceled. “They weren’t able to have a sense of closure last season due to the pandemic ending the season early. They’ve been deprived long enough. Being able to participate in sports while representing their school and community is something that gives them a sense of pride and allows camaraderie with their friends and schoolmates. They look forward to these opportunities. I’m excited for them.”

Veteran Brandywine coach Josh Hood, whose team wrapped up its 2019-20 season before sports were shut down, was equally as thrilled to be doing more than conditional and shooting drills come Monday afternoon.

“Our team — and entire program — is excited with the decision from the state to open up winter contact sports beginning next week,” he said. “Providing our student-athletes with any form of normalcy during these difficult times is a good thing. This year more than any, I will challenge our team to enjoy the journey and have fun competing against other schools while playing the game of basketball with friends.”

Girls basketball teams had wrapped up their first week of preseason drills when the governor and MDHSS announced that the state would take a three-week pause to try and get its COVID-19 numbers headed back the right way. Unfortunately, through several extensions, three weeks turned into almost two and a half months.

Edwardsburg, Niles and Dowagiac girls basketball coaches said their teams are ready to hit the court next week.

“This is a big win for the kids,” said Edwardsburg coach Jon Pobuda. “Our girls have been preparing for this since the season first started back in November. They have worked hard on their own to stay ready for this opportunity. They just want to compete after doing everything that has been asked of them. So, I’m excited for them more than anything. Lots of ups and downs, but now it’s time to play ball.”

Niles’ Jessica Johnson said her team has weathered the storm and come out the other side ready to go.

“Our girls have been great with the delays, they show up daily and give 100 percent,” she said. “The news to get started is exciting. Our team is ready to get back on the court and compete.”

Second-year Dowagiac coach Jason Turner is looking forward to seeing if the time his team has put in during the preseason will pay off on the court.

“I am excited for the girls if we are finally allowed to compete,” he said. “We have put in so much work since November whether it be virtually or in-person when we were allowed. The coaching staff has been trying to find ways to keep the girls excited and ready for the season.”

For area athletic directors, getting the kids back on the court is vital. For many of them, it has been an up and down couple of months as they tried to work out schedules to fit the latest guidelines.

Now, with a starting date and an end date, they are hoping they can put together a schedule that maximizes competition for their teams.

“It is with great excitement that we can begin our winter season,” said Cassopolis Athletic Director Chad Gardner. “It has been very difficult for our athletes, but it has been worth the wait. With this in mind, this is not the time to let our guard down. We still need to follow all the protocols set forth by our state and our schools. This does not just include the athletes. The spectators, no matter how many are allowed into the facilities, must adhere to the mask order. In these unprecedented times, we need to take extra precaution so we do not have any more delays.”

Edwardsburg’s Athletic Director Kevin Dean is happy that there will be a season at all.

“I think it is a great thing for our coaches and athletes,” he said. “We have been through so much this school year, but they have continued to work hard, do the things we need to do to stay healthy and safe and ready to compete when it is time. Although it will be a shorter season than usual, it is still a chance to play a meaningful season with a state championship. I applaud the MHSAA for continuing to fight for our athletes and stay committed to having three seasons this school year.”

Several conferences were meeting Friday to discuss how they want to schedule the remainder of the winter sport season. Complete schedules for the sixth teams that Leader Publications covers will be posted at leaderpub.com as soon as they become available.

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