Prep basketball makes changes, plays through pandemic

Mandated masks, no jump balls and social distancing are just some of the rules high schools are following to play this season

Cary forward Mike Crisp is guarded by Riverside junior Idris Bowling during the Imps’ 63-60 win last Thursday in Durham. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

CARY — As the tallest player on the Cary High School basketball team, Mike Crisp would normally have lined up for a jump ball to start last week’s game against Durham Riverside.

Instead, he and his teammates went straight into a defensive position while the opposition prepared to inbound the ball at half-court.

The elimination of the jump ball is one of several rules adjustments enacted by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association for the COVID-delayed 2020-21 season that began on Jan. 4.

But it’s hardly the most dramatic.

To make the games as safe as possible during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the state governing body has also mandated that all participants must wear a mask during play.

Including the officials.

“It’s kind of strange having your whistle in your mouth all the time,” referee Dennis Andrews said. “There’s no place for it to go with a mask on.”

It’s not an ideal situation, especially for young athletes exerting themselves at such a high level. But as far as Crisp is concerned, the inconvenience still beats the alternative.

“It’s different,” the 6-foot‑6 Imps center said. “You can’t breathe like you want to. But I’d rather play with a mask on than not, because for us seniors, we don’t have that other year to play like juniors and sophomores. So we’ve got to go get it.”

Among the other protocols that have been adopted to help mitigate the risk of COVID-19 include the elimination of pregame and postgame handshakes, socially distanced benches, the sanitizing of game balls during every timeout and quarter break, and the use of whistle guards by officials.

The NCHSAA has taken steps to help players adjust to wearing masks during games by mandating 60-second officials’ timeouts at the midway point of each quarter to allow them to catch their breath and hydrate.

Once play resumes, however, the mask rule is being strictly enforced. Anyone whose mask slips below his or her nose must immediately come out of the game.

Similar precautions were also in place for cross-country and volleyball, the first two NCHSAA-sanctioned sports to return to action in North Carolina.

“It takes some getting used to,” Keyon Webb, a junior at Durham’s Riverside High School, said. “We try to practice hard with masks on, keeping it above your nose. But other than that, it’s really just about how much heart you’ve got. You just want to stay safe at the end of the day.”

According to Webb, a 6-foot-2 guard who scored a game-high 31 points in the Pirates’ recent 63-60 loss at Cary, the lack of preparation time with his teammates has been a bigger adjustment than the wearing a face covering during the games.

Durham Riverside guard Keyon Webb takes a shot during a game against Cary High School (Brett Friedlander/North State Journal)

Between the cancellation of offseason training programs, classes being held virtually rather than on campuses around the state, and time off for the holidays, teams have had limited opportunities to work together leading up to last week’s season openers.

“We didn’t get a chance to practice or do anything,” Webb said. “We were kind of just sitting at home working out. But you don’t have anybody in front of you guarding you. By the time you come out here, that’s something you have to adjust to.”

As difficult as it’s been for the players to get ready for a season that started a month later than originally scheduled, it’s been even more of a challenge for their coaches.

“I have only two returning players, so with no spring or summer workouts and very limited fall workouts, it’s been a rush to put everything together,” Cary’s Scott Walton said. “But as a coach, we’re just happy to be playing basketball.

“I was worried that we weren’t going to be able to get anything in. So for our kids, especially our seniors, we’re willing to do whatever it takes.”

Some circumstances, however, are out of anybody’s control.

After playing its opener against Scotland last week, Fayetteville’s Jack Britt had its second scheduled game postponed when its opponent Lumberton was forced into quarantine because of COVID-19 issues.

“As an educator and a teacher, once you get started teaching it’s difficult to do what you need to do when there are interruptions,” Britt coach Isaiah Walker Jr. said. “Just because of the nature of our surroundings, it’s so far beyond what’s normal because of the stop and go.

“We’ve tried to take things one step at a time and not pile things on them too quick when it comes to getting in shape. My kids have been very resilient.”

They’ve had to be.

After getting in 10 practices to start the preseason, the Buccaneers’ preparations came to a screeching halt when Cumberland County announced a shutdown on Dec. 18. Practice resumed on Jan. 2, giving the team only three days to get ready for its first game.

The circumstances surrounding this unusual season have helped alter the perspective of everyone involved.

Regardless of the numbers on the scoreboard, Walker said it’s a win anytime a team is able to get on the court and play the game.

“One of the things I talk to my guys about is how lost time is never found again,” the veteran coach said. “Where you are in this moment, you have to maximize it, because you don’t get this moment again.

“I’m 54 years old and I still remember everything about the last high school basketball game I got to play. The experience of being able to play is the most important thing.”

Even if it means wearing a mask to do so.