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Rise in COVID-19 cases has athletic directors scrambling to find ways to get through winter sports season

Hingham's boys' hockey team, which made the Super 8 Tournament in 2019, had its game against Duxbury postponed on Saturday.
Hingham's boys' hockey team, which made the Super 8 Tournament in 2019, had its game against Duxbury postponed on Saturday.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The Fall I season was a challenge for high school athletic directors across the state.

Pushing forward with the winter season safely during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic was always going to be more difficult because the competition, aside from skiing, is held indoors. And the holiday break, and the resulting spike in COVID-19 numbers from gatherings, has complicated the situation further.

There are a number of athletic programs in Eastern Massachusetts that are currently in one- or two-week pauses, many as a result of their school districts going fully remote. On Saturday, at least 30 scheduled games in the Globe’s daily database were postponed.

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“We all [athletic directors] have systems, but right now the way we’re postponing and then quickly trying to find another league opponent, it’s almost like we’re running a tournament,” said Hingham AD Jim Quatromoni.

Hingham girls’ hockey shut down before the break and boys’ hockey is on pause after postponing Saturday’s Patriot League matchup with Duxbury. While Hingham will occasionally approve non-league games, the vast majority of competitions are in “pods” within the league.

“As more teams go [on pause], it’s getting close to that critical point where we might have to go outside our [league] to find games,” said Quatromoni. “We might have to get together and create a new schedule. But whatever you can dream up, we’re going to find a way around it.”

Other leagues are trying to head off the problem by delaying the winter season. The six schools of the Greater Boston League (Chelsea, Everett, Medford, Malden, Somerville, Revere) voted to postpone all winter sports competitions, aside from girls’ hockey and gymnastics, until March 1. There are no guarantees that any of those schools, or incoming members Lynn English and Lynn Classical, will be cleared for competition by March, but it gives these densely-populated areas a shot.

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The Merrimack Valley Conference took precautions by delaying the start of winter competitions to Jan. 11 to allow for a week-long buffer after the break.

But with a 19 percent positivity rate in Lawrence, the Lancers are off the schedule for now.

“The numbers keep trending the wrong direction,” said Lawrence AD Brendan Neilon.

“Everything is on hold. We would like to get the numbers low enough where we can even practice and have kids in the gym together. The message to our coaches and community is that everyone has to sit tight and follow the rules so we can get back quicker.”

Lawrence isn’t the only school system that has made a difficult decision due to safety precautions.

Barnstable, Sandwich, Falmouth, Monomoy, Scituate, Marshfield, Plymouth North, Whitman-Hanson, Taunton, and Dartmouth have all gone on pause after cases increased in January. In the Bay State Conference, Wellesley and Weymouth are on temporary pause, while Framingham has yet to start winter competitions.

Even private schools are shutting down specific sports for contact tracing, with Bishop Stang, Bishop Feehan, Bishop Fenwick, and St. Mary’s giving one or more of their programs a week off to reset.

And teams that recently played against programs that have gone on pause have to clear their own COVID protocols before they can start competing again.

The MVC looks to avoid setbacks as the league implements a familiar model with schools competing twice per week in a home-and-away set for every sport. So Central Catholic and Andover will face off in boys’ and girls’ basketball, and boys’ and girls’ hockey this week.

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“Every day you get thrown a curveball,” said Central Catholic AD Ernie DiFiore.

“If we can get this whole season in, that would be fantastic, because it’s been a long haul for these kids. The goal is to provide them with the chance to compete, and to that end, we’re going to do whatever we have to do to keep them healthy and keep the contact to a minimum.”

But even with good contact tracing and social-distancing practices, ADs have to be on top of the situation at all times, and ready to pivot if their communities experience an outbreak. Of course it’s not just their decision, as principals, superintendents, and school committees also weigh in on the viability of interscholastic competitions.

“Everybody knows that the health and safety of the student athlete is paramount. But [all administrators] want them to have their winter season,” said Lowell AD Dave Lezenski. “It’s a little bit hectic. But that room of decision-makers has been fabulous.”

With his voice indicating exhaustion, Lezenski explained that three months of organizing fall sports has provided some base knowledge of how to run activities during a pandemic. The processes are in place — from sanitizing stations, to makeshift locker rooms, to designated entries and exits — but the virus continues to seep through those safeguards.

“It’s like Groundhog Day for the ADs,” said Lezenski. “Every day, you don’t know what’s going to happen. My phone has been ringing off the hook and you can’t help but become a little paranoid that ‘so-and-so got COVID,’ or ‘this person has been deemed a close contact.’ The fear of not knowing, that’s taxing.”

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Taking note

▪ Administrators from the Boston City League continue to discuss the possibility of beginning winter sports activities. Some schools might be ready to begin practices as early as Jan. 11, with most likely to delay until Jan. 19. Basketball games could begin by end of January and the hope is to end the season with a City League tournament the week of Feb. 22.

▪ Former Billerica lacrosse captain and United States Army veteran Justin Keefe died unexpectedly on Jan. 6. A 2000 graduate and Purple Heart recipient, he was 38. A graveside service will be held at the Fox Hill Cemetery in Billerica at noon Monday.

▪ Northeastern graduate and former Trinity College associate head coach John Zall was hired as the next boys’ basketball coach at Vermont Academy.