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Newton athletic teams adjust to realities of the pandemic

Newton North High School
Newton North High SchoolJohn Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, some varsity programs at Newton high schools are finding ways to resume playing and continue practicing — even garnering the attention of college scouts and recruiters. And those teams sidelined due to the pandemic are eager to get back into the game for the winter and spring seasons.

Newton North Athletic Director Thomas Giusti said that in his experience, student-athletes have adjusted well despite the changes.

“The kids have responded,” Giusti said. “They’ve stepped up; they follow the directions.”

At the same time, Giusti said, “in a heartbeat things can change.” High school athletes are young, he said, and might feel “indestructible.”

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“Nothing ever is going to bother them,” Giusti said. “This is a bigger than life situation right now.”

Tara Bennett, director of communications for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), said due to the pandemic, sports teams were divided into two periods of play, meaning certain teams were not able to start their season when they usually would.

Patricia Rivero Gonzalez, Newton South director of athletics and wellness, said in a voicemail that their outlook on getting athletes back on the field is “very similar” to Newton North. During the pandemic, she said, coaches have continued to make connections, and recruiters have continued to inquire about athletes with good grades, character, and sportsmanship.

At Newton North, Brian Leighton, varsity head coach for girls’ soccer, said the new MIAA regulations to address COVID fundamentally changed how all varsity athletes are playing soccer. Leighton said throw-ins aren’t allowed, corner kicks have nearly become obsolete, headers are no longer permitted, and all free kicks have to be grounded.

Leighton said these changes directly impact a player’s ability to grow and become better at the game.

“I think there’s something to be specifically said about technical development,” Leighton said. “All of a sudden, it starts to touch on the technical nuances of player development, which is concerning.”

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Leighton said these changes also make it harder for varsity soccer athletes looking to make highlight reels to share with college scouts.

Not only that but Leighton said recruiters would not be traveling far around the region to watch sports games due to the pandemic.

“You’re not going to have the Amhersts or the Wheatons of the world or schools that are much further out than Newton North come out this year to watch,” Leighton said.

Leighton said another tricky aspect surrounding varsity high school sports is the NCAA’s new rule of giving college athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which will cause the number of slots available in college athletic programs to fluctuate.

Newton South High School boys soccer coach Floyd Butler said the biggest challenge for his team is the inability to play with contact. Butler said physicality is one of his team’s strengths, particularly in his senior class.

“Pretty much all of the game modifications end up not being an opportunity for us to lean on that strength,” Butler said.

Even so, Butler said, these rule changes have also had benefits.

“It forced people to rely more-so on possession, which was a really good thing in my eyes,” Butler said.

This Fall was Butler’s first year as the Newton South boys’ soccer team coach, which he said required his players to make quick adjustments given the lack of a social dynamic due to the pandemic.

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“The boys in Newton South had a particular challenge in that this was my first year in charge, and they had to learn a new philosophy and new style of play,” Butler said.

For high school football players in Newton, the pandemic meant they had to sit this year out.

Newton South High School football coach Ted Dalicandro said he doesn’t expect his team to play again until 2021. He said it has not been easy, but he tries to keep sending positive messages and encourage team members to keep working hard in the weight room.

Dalicandro said his players maintained skills and team chemistry by taking to the field for seven-on-seven football games over the summer and into the fall.

“It keeps the kids competitive, it keeps the kids getting together,” Dalicandro said. “It keeps that social, emotional health piece that team sports bring.”

Dalicandro said they have had a “total disadvantage” when getting noticed by scouts, along with other football teams in Massachusetts. He said many other states allowed high schoolers to play football.

“My ultimate goal is to have these players playing football again,” Dalicandro said. “It can happen, it should happen, it can be done safely.”

Newton North varsity boys basketball coach Paul Connolly, whose team didn’t play this season due to the pandemic, said it’s important to remember high school students are not experiencing many important events such as prom and graduation — whether or not they play sports.

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“I really feel bad for these kids that are missing out on so many opportunities,” Connolly said.

Bennett, the MIAA communications director, said athletic departments at high schools are trying to do what they can to get student-athletes playing again in the safest way possible.

“The common thinking with many athletic directors [is] they just want to see them play,” Bennett said. “They want to get kids back on the field, back in the pool, back on the mound.”

Nick Telesmanic can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.