Players, coaches take in unusual basketball atmosphere - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Players, coaches take in unusual basketball atmosphere

February 4th, 2021 SanTan Sun News
Players, coaches take in unusual basketball atmosphere
Sports and Recreation

By Zach Alvira
Sports Editor

Players sat staggered in three rows of chairs or bleachers, much like what has been seen in the NBA and in college basketball.

A personal water bottle sits next to the player’s designated seat, which remains their own throughout the duration of the game. Whether on the bench or in the middle of a fast break on the court, masks remain above the mouth and nose. If it slips down, coaches or referees remind players to pull it up. Often times, however, players are disciplined enough to remember themselves.

It’s that type of discipline that the coaches and players across the state hope remains intact throughout the duration of the winter sports season, which was almost lost after the Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Board voted to cancel the season altogether. Four days later, however, a re-vote reinstated the season.

Now, the main focus is on keeping it going.

“It was kind of weird,” Perry coach Sam Duane said after his team’s win over Hamilton. “When we went on a run, we didn’t have that crowd to get us pumped up. We told our guys we had to bring our own energy.”

Duane, a longtime coach at Perry, anticipated the possibility for a mask mandate for all participating athletes about a month ago. It was at that time he began requiring his players to wear masks while in practice.

The same rule was adopted at other schools across the East Valley, including at all those in Tempe Union High School District, which required masks in the fall during practice for all athletes. But what Duane didn’t anticipate was the ominous feeling in the gymnasium with limited crowd.

When the Pumas faced Hamilton on the road to start the season Tuesday, Jan. 19, only a crowd of about 20 people were in the stands opposite the benches. A small handful of that crowd was media. Per AIA guidelines, only two parents per a player on the home team are allowed to attend games.

That means no cheer for some schools, no band and no student-led chants that make high school basketball one of the rowdiest sports throughout the season. And for Perry, that meant playing a game with no fans of their own.

“Not having my family there to support me, it made it feel more like a practice or scrimmage,” Perry 7-foot junior Dylan Anderson said. “The energy definitely wasn’t there from the crowd.”

While music played between quarters and at halftime, the feeling wasn’t nearly the same. Parents, who at times can become rowdy, virtually sat in silence throughout the game.

Anderson said he and other players had to watch what they say in frustrating situations because their voices are no longer drowned out by home or opposing student sections. Coaches have to proceed with caution, too, as even the slightest elevation in the volume of their voice against a referee will no longer go unnoticed.

“You definitely have to watch your mouth while playing,” Anderson said. “They can hear everything you say. But it feels great. First game, first win, I’m just glad to be in this position.”

Schools like Hamilton are taking extra steps to ensure maximum mitigation efforts.

In between junior varsity and varsity games Tuesday night, school administrators cleared the gymnasium of all fans before allowing spectators for varsity in. This allowed for limited number of people in the gym at one time.

At Perry, where the varsity girls took on Hamilton, similar crowd sizes were seen. And unlike during the fall season, where there was limited action taken against fans who did may have pulled down masks while seated both in the gyms and football fields, policy was strictly enforced and followed.

“I think they’re doing a fabulous job,” Hamilton boys basketball coach Doug Harris said of the school’s plan for winter sports. “When one game is over, they clear out the gym and cleaned down the bleachers. I think they’ve been doing a tremendous job.

“Credit to the people behind the scenes at Hamilton that are willing to do that.”

While the atmosphere was far different from year’s past, when overflow crowds were common at games that feature teams of Perry and Hamilton’s caliber, all involved agree the strict guidelines are better than not playing at all.

Harris believes as the season progresses and players, coaches and fans become more accustomed to the unusual atmosphere, some games may return to some resemblance of normalcy. But regardless, he said his team is just happy to have the opportunity to compete.

“I can’t commend these young players enough for what they’ve overcome and all the resiliency they’ve shown during these times,” Harris said. “We were practicing for two months then found out the season was canceled then back on. What they’ve endured, I can’t credit them enough.

“I think they feel very thankful to play a game they love and enjoy. I think it gives them some sense of normalcy.”