Players, coaches adjusting to new way of life
Players wore masks and few spectators watched them. But after waiting nearly a year, they finally played.
Everything looks different this high school basketball season and nobody knows what the future holds. Everyone is behind schedule. Still, nobody is complaining.
“I can’t compliment our guys enough for how they have handled everything. They have been ready to run through a wall,” Loyalsock coach Ron Insinger said following his team’s opening-night 75-35 win against Jersey Shore. “We used to say everything is day to day. Now it’s hour to hour and we are trying to play as much as we can and they’re playing as hard as they can.”
“The most challenging part for me is the fact that nothing is guaranteed. The phrase ‘play every game like it’s your last,’ has never been more relevant, because we really do not know,” Montoursville guard Peyton Mussina said following his team’s 61-41 season-opening win against Lewisburg. “Something could unfold and our season could be over tomorrow, and that is scary.”
That uncertainty permeated the scene last month as many area teams opened winter practices on time. Opening night was just three days away when Gov. Tom Wolf halted high school sports from midnight Dec. 11 through Jan. 3. The three-week layoff meant coaches had to re-teach plays and plans when practices resumed last Monday.
Teams that were well-conditioned before the break are trying to get back to that level since they were barred from working together and gyms were shut down statewide.
“They are grateful and happy to be back on the court,” Jersey Shore coach Scott Munro said. “You just go out and have fun and loose and play as hard as you can. That’s all I can ask.”
Players are wearing masks while they compete, but it does seem to be impeding their quality of play. In the grand scheme of things, players know it’s a small price to pay in order to play now and keep playing for the next few months.
“I do not have a huge problem with the masks. You got to do what you got to do to play and if all I have to do is throw a cloth on my face for four quarters, I’m willing to make that sacrifice,” Mussina said. “One thing I try to tell myself is as badly as I want to take the mask off at practice and stuff, that isn’t going to benefit me at all when games come around. So I convince myself to keep the masks on and I’ll thank myself in the future.”
Along with the physical hurdles are the logistical ones. Just last week the original area schedule was repeatedly shuffled. That is the new normal. Teams may go to bed expecting to play one opponent, wake up and find out they are playing another.
It was like that at times in the fall, too, so athletic directors and athletes have at least grown acustomed to the constant change.
“It’s been pretty crazy. I think we’ve changed our schedule 20 times already,” said Insinger, who is also Loyalock’s athletic director. “I told my players I’d get them as many games as I could and that’s what I’m going to try and do and hopefully it works out.”
Even if coaches can do film work as they prepare for an opponent there is no guarantee that team will look the same when they meet. COVID and contact tracing could sideline a player or multiple players for a week or two. In a condensed schedule that could potentially mean missing 6-8 games.
There are so many unknowns. Athletes and coaches often speak in cliches and the most popular is “We’re taking it one day at a time.” Never has that been more true than now.
Teams have championship aspirations and players have personal goals. Really, though, their ultimate focus is on the here and now. That is the only thing they can control. The goal now is making the most of every opportunity.
“You’d like to be able to get into a routine but you can’t really do that right now. That’s the way it is and it’s that way on every team,” Munro said. “Really, we’re just fortunate we can play and are thankful for that.”
Jersey Shore lost its top three scorers from last year as well as four starters. The Bulldogs (0-2) start four underclassmen, but the potential for exponential growth is there if they can get a lot of games together this season
Lone returning starter Damian Williams is an excellent rebounder. Point guard Tristan Gallick and forward guard Cayden Hess played well off the bench last year while Damian McAllister looks like a potential weapon inside. Owen Bloom scored 10 points off the bench against Loyalsock and both Branden Wheary and Cam Embick can provide sparks.
This core won 20 games at the JV level last year, so better times could be coming.
“I have a lot of confidence in this group,” Munro said. “We have some hard workers and some gym rats who were always in there last year (before COVID). I think we’ll get better with more time on the court together. I think we’ll be fine.”
Dr. Masse’s Top 5
1. Loyalsock (1-0)
Danville was the only team to beat Loyalsock last year and the Lancers avenged that defeat, making an early statement with a 69-50 road win Saturday. Dom Jennings scored a career-high 21 points for a team which looks every bit as dangerous as last year despite losing two dynamic starters.
2. St. John Neumann (1-0)
David Hill scored 30 points as Neumann pulled away from pesky Montgomery for a 93-55 season-opening win. Sophomore Davion Hill (19 points, nine rebounds, six steals) picked up where he left off last year, and Hanief Clay and Keon Burkholder combined for 21 points and seven steals.
3. Montoursville (1-0)
Landon Reeder looked eager to make the most of his first starting opportunity, scoring a career-high 14 points in the Lewisburg win. The Warriors hit nine 3-pointers and have two tests this week against fellow AAAA contenders Shamokin and Mifflinburg.
4. Williamsport (0-0)
Hazleton did not have the mandated four practices in yet to play Williamsport on Saturday so the Millionaires will open their season Tuesday, hosting Crestwood. Williamsport will play three times this week.
5. North Penn-Liberty (0-0)
Four starters return from last year’s NTL-II champion and North Penn-Liberty opens its season Friday at Cowanesque Valley.
Players of the Week
Peyton Mussina, Montoursville and Saraj Ali, Loyalsock
Mussina did not let the layoff disrupt his game as he matched a career-high with 28 points against Lewisburg and drained five 3-pointers. Ali flourished as a sophomore last year and is quickly becoming a star. The 6-foot-4 forward grew two inches in the offseason and dominated inside against Jersey Shore and Danville, recording double-doubles in both games. Ali produced a career-high 25 points and 22 rebounds against Danville and had 48 points and 32 rebounds on consecutive nights.
Game of the Week
Montgomery at Muncy
These rivals played one of last season’s most exciting games when Montgomery erased a nine-point deficit in the final two minutes of regulation and stunned Muncy in overtime. The rematch is tonight with Muncy returning all five starters.
Masse may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse