Winter sports adapting to the circumstances

Schools and athletes are coming up with new ideas and methods in preparing for the resumption of low-risk winter sports.

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Evanston coach Kevin Auger gives instruction during swim practice in August.

Evanston coach Kevin Auger gives instruction during swim practice in August.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

When low-risk prep sports were shut down last week after only three days of practice because of the pandemic, Evanston senior swimmer Charlie Duffy wasn’t complaining.

He knows from personal experience just how dangerous COVID-19 can be. Duffy and his mom tested positive early in the shutdown, and he can attest to the coronavirus’ potency.

“I had really bad symptoms,” Duffy said, “a 104 [degree] fever, throwing up. I had the worst headache of my life.”

If there was a silver lining, it’s that the disease didn’t linger. But Duffy still realizes the stakes of trying to go forward with sports and other everyday activities while the COVID numbers are surging in Illinois.

Evanston swimmer Charlie Duffy, who is committed to Tufts, understands firsthand the dangers of COVID-19 after battling the disease earlier this year. 

Evanston swimmer Charlie Duffy, who is committed to Tufts, understands firsthand the dangers of COVID-19 after battling the disease earlier this year.


“From my experience, it was terrible,” said Duffy, a Tufts recruit and returning state qualifier. “I can’t imagine [the effect on] a person who’s a bit older and at risk. . . . You definitely need to be careful around it.”

That’s definitely job one for administrators, coaches and athletes when low-risk winter sports resume, most likely in January.

Boys and girls bowling, boys swimming and girls gymnastics, along with competitive cheerleading and dance, were allowed to begin practice Nov. 16, with competition scheduled to start Nov. 30.

But on Nov. 17, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced tougher mitigation efforts — including shutting down high school and youth sports — to go into effect two days later as infections surged.

That left boys bowlers from Lockport improvising ways to stay sharp.

“Our truly dedicated ones, they’ve figured out something to do at home,” Porters assistant coach Alan Bean said. “We’ve had kids tell us they’re rolling bowling balls down the hallway into a pillow. They’re working on form.”

Meanwhile, athletic directors such as Evanston’s Chris Livatino and his Central Suburban League peers are tweaking their plans for winter competition.

“We’re all realistically saying Jan. 4 is probably a logical restart date,” Livatino said. “It’s when we would come back [from Christmas break]. . . . If you had [that] as the start date, it’s a shorter season, but you could still fit in six weeks.

“We can find ways to get in a good, competitive season in that time.”

The latest IHSA calendar has winter sports ending Feb. 13, but that was put together before higher-risk sports such as basketball had their start dates delayed indefinitely. The expectation is that further calendar updates are coming, but what they’ll look like is anyone’s guess.

One thing that seems likely whenever sports resume is that much competition will be virtual, with teams competing in their own venues and comparing scores and times to determine winners.

Another change, carried over from low-risk fall sports: more dual meets and fewer tournaments and invitationals. That’s not ideal in bowling, Bean said.

“All of our dual matches are fun to play against the other schools,” he said. “[But] tournaments are the way you prepare [for the state series]. You get to see how they bowl late in the afternoon.”

In gymnastics, going virtual raised the issue of what to do about judging. With officials in short supply, the usual two-person crew likely would be split up with one heading to each location.

In bowling, multisite events raise the issue of the differing oil patterns at various facilities, which can have a significant effect on scoring.

While it’s still unclear how gymnastics and bowling meets will look under COVID protocols, the picture is clearer in boys swimming. Many of the lessons learned during the fall girls season will be applied for the boys this winter.

“With some experience, I think it definitely helps,” said Kevin Auger, Evanston’s head coach for boys and girls swimming. “The whole [issue of] how to run a meet and keep kids safe, we have that down now. That stuff is second nature.”

Something Auger and other coaches realized late in the girls season related to relays. The IHSA had banned them, but that rule didn’t take into account the decision to go virtual with most competition.

So with the IHSA’s blessing, Auger put together a virtual relay meet with Stevenson the week of girls sectionals. It was worth it: The Wildkits set one program record by two seconds and also posted two All-America qualifying times.

Auger saw how well the girls season went — even without a state meet and three weeks shorter than usual — and recalls the pain of losing the boys water polo season last spring.

So he is hoping even more than before that his boys swim team will get some semblance of a season.

“After going through water polo the way I did, I’d be happy if it’s January [for a restart],” he said.

“Anything would be better than nothing.’’

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