After one week of preseason tryouts, Scituate boys’ basketball coach Matt Poirier could easily recognize which players had properly conditioned themselves for the upcoming season.
With the MIAA mandating that players must wear masks at all times on the court as part of its list of winter sports modifications, an emphasis is put on cardio and endurance. Especially for a high-paced Scituate squad that employs a full-court press defense and pushes the ball up court after made baskets.
“It was easy to prepare as a coach but it was not easy to prepare for a player,” said Poirier, who guided the Sailors to the Division 2 South final last season. “If you did not sacrifice and work hard to put your body into the proper shape, that tryout experience was atrocious. I saw kids who couldn’t get their breaths because of the mask.”
Leading up to the season, players and coaches feared the modifications would alter the authenticity of the game. But following Wednesday’s Patriot League season-opener between Scituate and Silver Lake, a 58-35 win for the host Sailors, those doubts seemed to ease.
Outside of mask wearing, the other tangible in-game differences were the lack of a jump-ball — substituted by a pregame coin toss — and only two players in the key on a free-throw attempt. Inbound plays under the basket are also eliminated and replaced by an inbound from the sideline.
However, there was still tight man-to-man defense, boxing out, and play designs.
“We’ll abide by whatever rules we are given but it’s ultimately basketball,” Poirier said. “It’s very much authentic.”
In agreement, Silver Lake coach Sean Donovan said the game came down to which team made more shots. However, Donovan said the most glaring changes from prior seasons are the small intricacies of basketball. Players must now spread out in different rows on the bench and there’s no opportunity for the usual pregame or halftime speeches since locker rooms are off limits. Players also must hand sanitize after substituting out of the game.
“It’s different because you’re tying to make it normal,” Donovan said. “Your pregame stuff you’re not able to do, postgame they’re getting changed on the court. For the athletes, they remember a pregame speech and a postgame speech and those are the things I think they’re going to miss out on the most.”
The fan experience has also shifted.
In the Patriot League, the home team is allowing two family members per player to attend the game while the visiting team is not allowed to bring any fans. Other leagues such as the Dual County League, Middlesex League, South Shore League, and Tri-Valley League are not admitting any fans.
Scituate junior point guard Keegan Sullivan admitted he thought there were would more guidelines when the MIAA released its winter plans in November.
After the Sailors’ deep postseason run last season, Sullivan said it’s an adjustment having to shift from a 20-game schedule to an 11-game Patriot League slate against Fisher Division opponents, followed by the Patriot Cup and no statewide tournament.
“I think it makes every game matter more,” said Sullivan, a returning league all-star who netted 17 points in the season-opening win.
“Usually our goal is to make it deeper into the tournament and this year our goal is to win the Fisher Division and win the Patriot Cup.”
▪ The Catholic Central League kicked off its 12-game season last week, becoming the first EMass. league to partake in the basketball season. Arlington Catholic has already played three games, all on the road, and coach Joel Burke acknowledged that he was hesitant at first about traveling to other gyms.
But Burke, who has coached high school basketball for 34 years, was relieved to see all three of his team’s opponents — Cathedral, Bishop Feehan, and Cardinal Spellman — follow the proper protocols.
“I was nervous and it was refreshing to get to Cathedral and know they were doing the exact same thing as us,” Burke said. “I didn’t feel threatened or nervous about COVID because everyone was doing such a great job.”
The Catholic Central plans on playing a 12-game slate concluding with a conference tournament. Burke said his players are just happy to be on the court this season.
“We know things are different but the kids were able to play basketball,” Burke said. “As far as the game was going it was just like a regular game.”
▪ At Waltham High, head coach Michael Wilder wanted to make sure his players got some on-court experience over the break. The program just got new red-and-white game uniforms, so Wilder set up an intrasquad scrimmage with certified officials. He also organized team pictures in those uniforms and, with 11 new players on the roster, introduced each kid to the community with a one-minute video.
“Our philosophy is, who knows what’s going to happen,” Wilder said. “I assume we’re going to play, but what if it blows up. These are some things I would have never done before. But I wanted to make sure my kids got a chance to wear those new uniforms.”
▪ The Boston City League postponed winter sports beyond its original start date of Jan. 4. Basketball coaches are still hopeful that practices can begin on Jan. 11 with games starting later in the month.
▪ Amesbury announced a two-week pause on winter sports, and the Amesbury boys’ and girls’ basketball teams sent joint letters to the school committee urging them to reconsider.
▪ The Brookline Board of Health has yet to clear the Brookline basketball programs for game action, but practices are allowed.
Nate Weitzer also contributed to this story.