Winter track approaches starting line with new look due to COVID-19 regulations

It will be a high school winter track season for boys and girls like no other.

Dual meets only, outdoors! Athletes wearing face masks — and in some cases gloves — while competing. Equipment in field events being sanitized between use. No invitationals. No postseason meets. No spectators.

This is what winter track in the age of the coronavirus looks like.

“This is going to be wild, to say the least,” Mattituck boys coach Chris Cavanaugh said of the season that starts this weekend and runs through Feb. 14.

“All these things will add up to it being a very different season that we haven’t seen before, but that’s exciting, too,” said Mattituck senior Luke Altman.

Just how this experiment turns out remains to be seen but, regardless, it will be a memorable and historic season.

“I love it,” Shoreham-Wading River boys coach Joe Mordarski said. “What I mean by that is I love that I was given the opportunity to represent the community of Shoreham and, you know, be a part of it because if I can have a hand bringing these kids some normalcy back, put me in, coach.”

The pursuit of normalcy comes amid abnormal conditions, starting with the fact that, for this season at least, winter track will be an outdoor sport (indoor tracks at St. Anthony’s High School and Suffolk County Community College are not available). That’s not new, though. Winter track was run outdoors decades ago.

“As old as I am, I coached winter track for a number of years at Pat-ch-ogue-Medford as a teacher and a coach and we were outdoors, so we got it done then,” Section XI executive director Tom Combs said. “It’s a whole different world, I know that, but listen, the way I look at it, I think it’s better for the kids to be able to participate and, if that’s our only option, we’ll take it.”

Winter track athletes are well-accustomed to training outdoors, even if actual outdoor competitions will be new to them.

“I got my ski cap, I got my big, long jacket. I may not be able to write anything but I’ll be OK, I think,” jested SWR girls coach Paul Koretzki.

Athletes will need to be careful to stretch out thoroughly, warm up and stay warm to avoid pulling muscles. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association has recommendations for various wind-chill readings, prohibiting outside activity should the wind-chill factor reach minus-11 degrees or lower.

Nikki Searles practices the hurdles at Tuesday’s track practice in Mattituck. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

Face masks, the symbol of this pandemic, will be prominent, along with social distancing. All coaches and officials are required to keep both nose and mouth covered at all times, as are athletes when they are not competing. In running events up to 300 meters, athletes may lower their masks upon an official’s signal at the starting line, but must cover their nose and mouth with the mask immediately after crossing the finish line.

In the 600-meter event and longer distances, runners must wear face coverings for the first 300 meters, after which they may lower the mask. Gloves must be worn in relay races. Leadoff runners may run without a mask, but outgoing runners must wear a mask until they have left the baton exchange zone.

Tony Toro, the Section XI boys and girls winter track coordinator, has been involved in the sport since 1969 and remembers those outdoor winter seasons. “This is different because there’s so many rules you got to follow because of the virus,” he said.

“There’s a lot of craziness going on,” Mattituck girls coach Chris Robinson said of the situation. Asked what this season will be like, he said: “I think unique is a good word. I think different is a good word. It’s great in a way because the kids get to start competing again.”

SWR senior Tyler Hawks appreciates that. “It’s strange and the protocols are good,” he said. “We’re getting used to it, but I think we’re all just happy to be back and have some sense of normalcy even if it’s not like what it was previously.”

As strange as this winter track season may seem, it may have been even stranger. Strong consideration had been given to not having the meets scored (meaning no wins or losses for teams) and having field events conducted virtually.

The argument against scoring was that schools that have cohorts and aren’t allowed to have all their athletes together for a meet would be at a disadvantage.

Mordarski took the opposing view and was relieved when it was decided that team scores would be kept. “Some people use this sport to lift themselves out of poverty,” he said. “That’s a very serious thing. Some people use this sport to better their lives, and I think that that’s a really serious thing, and I think that we ought to take it very seriously.”

Southold/Greenport boys coach Joe Corrado said he was torn and “50-50” on the scoring issue. “You just got to adapt to what the procedures are, you know?” he said. “Even with life, you got to adapt to what the reality is.”

Other low- and moderate-risk winter sports have been authorized to start their seasons, but for some schools, track is their only active sport, and the spotlight will shine on it.

“We got the kids, we got the season approved, now, like I said last time, let’s finish the season,” Cavanaugh said. “Since we’re the only sport out there, I guess we’re kind of like the guinea pig … so hopefully we set a good example and hopefully the kids finish the season. All the eyes are on us to set a good example.”

Protocols and precautions aside, it’s a new season and the first competitive high school track New York State has seen in 10 months.

“We’re all excited to be together again,” SWR senior Tyler Friedlander said. “We got new uniforms. The whole buzz is something we haven’t had in a long time around here … I don’t think there’ll ever be a season like this again, really.”