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North Fork schools find ways to offer after-school athletic activity

Under a gorgeous, blue October sky on a brilliant weekday afternoon, the Mattituck High School campus had taken on the appearance of a sports camp. Tennis players were hitting balls on the courts. Cross-country runners were stretching out and loosening up on the track. Flag football players were tossing a ball around. Soccer players were getting their kicks, too.

A typical, peaceful fall scene. One might have thought all was well with the world. By all appearances, life was normal (discounting the facemasks being worn). Of course, it wasn’t, not with the world in the throes of the worst pandemic in a hundred years.

Then again, that was one of the points of all this athletic activity — to help get the minds of students off of coronavirus (even if only for a couple of hours), give them something to look forward to and allow them to have some fun and exercise at the same time. That’s the aim of intramural athletic programs being run on the North Fork.

Interscholastic sports for Long Island public schools have been put on hold until 2021, when the three sports seasons are to be condensed and run from January to June.

Intramurals could be the next best thing for now, a steppingstone to normalcy, perhaps. That’s the hope as the North Fork’s three high schools are home to after-school athletic activities for students in grades 7-12.

Asked about the purpose, Kim Gerstung, who coaches soccer in Mattituck, said: “Just to get these kids involved in something, get them active because literally for six months they were sitting in front of a computer at home. They weren’t doing a lot of activity, so now at least they’re out doing something … They’re with their friends. They’re having fun. We just want them to have fun.”

Flag football is one of the sports offered at Mattituck’s intramural program. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

In Mattituck, 198 students have registered for intramural cross country, tennis, flag football and soccer, said athletic director Gregg Wormuth. The program started Sept. 29 and will run until Nov. 19. “It’s our fall sports season, just in a different way,” he said.

Mattituck’s intramurals have proven to be popular with junior high school students, who can attend intramurals four days a week because they’re in school every day. High school students can take part on the days they are in school, typically every other school day.

So, what have intramurals been like?

“Different,” said Chris Robinson, who is coaching Mattituck cross country with Frank Massa. “Different is a good word, but it’s good because these kids have been kind of trapped for a little while now and to get them out in the fresh air is a good thing.”

Mr. Robinson added: “I think sports in general [are] an important thing for this age group. The camaraderie and bonding and just work ethic and determination, and a lot of these kids, they’ve been wanting this since February and it’s been something that’s been put on pause … I just think it’s something they need to get their minds off of the situation that’s going on and get back to what they know, and that’s playing sports and being active.”

Girls tennis coach Cory Dolson leads the tennis portion of the intramurals. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

At Greenport High School, about 90 students are registered for an intramural program for soccer, track and field and field hockey as well as a weight-training program, said athletic director Chris Golden. It all started Oct. 13.

Mr. Golden said he has been “thrilled” with the interest. “The purpose is to get these kids, give them an opportunity to get back outside and to participate in some type of athletic activity,” he said. “More importantly, it’s to see them laughing and really enjoying themselves again.”

Southold High School has taken a different approach, with the focus on conditioning and skills. One week has been devoted to each of the three high school sports seasons, said athletic director Steve Flanagan. This current third week is reserved for spring sports. Mr. Flanagan said he hopes to repeat the three-week cycle once more before the weather gets too cold for outdoor activity.

Well over 100 Southold students have signed up. Students spend 15 minutes each at strength, cardiovascular, agility/flexibility and mental preparation stations before moving on to work on sport-specific skills for 45 minutes, said Mr. Flanagan.

“The energy is a good energy that we see out there,” he said. “It’s been great.”

Coaches said intramurals have drawn some students who might not have tried out for school teams. A similar thing can be said of coaches. Sean Morgan, a social studies teacher, doesn’t come from the coaching community, but he’s coaching flag football in Mattituck.

Flag football players wearing masks vie for the ball. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

“I’m not from the coaching world, but I’ve played football growing up and I’m an avid football fan so I signed up, jumped at the opportunity to come out here and help these guys out,” said Mr. Morgan, who played football at St. John the Baptist High School.

Mr. Morgan recognizes the value of sports. “That’s a reason kids come to school, you know,” he said. “They look forward to the end of the day. They keep showing up and it’s been a lot of fun.”

One of the Mattituck flag football players, sophomore Kevin Koch, said he always wanted to play football, but flag football may be the next-best thing. “I like how it’s kind of laid-back and still competitive at the same time,” he said.

Mattituck intramurals may be primarily about having fun, but there is a competitive aspect to it, too. Ms. Gerstung has added salt to the soup, making things interesting by instituting a points system for the soccer players. An app is used to randomly place players on different teams every day. Each player is awarded one point for every game his or her team wins and half a point for a tie.

“The kids like it,” Ms. Gerstung said. “They can’t wait for me to post the updated” standings for each grade.

Twins Sean and Casey Szczotka were atop the eighth-grade standings at the start of this particular day.

“I didn’t think it was going to be as fun, but it really is, especially going against him,” said Casey Szczotka, gesturing toward her brother.

On Mattituck’s four tennis courts, coach Cory Dolson said he’s running things like a clinic “only because we have some kids who have never picked a racket up before, and then we have some kids who played on the tennis team, right, so the skill levels are very different.”

Mattituck senior cross-country runner Kylie Conroy mischievously alluded to Mr. Robinson when she was asked what she likes best about intramurals.

Undoubtedly grinning under her facemask, she answered, “Annoying Rob.”