By Dan Hardenbrook

The winter sports season arrived with the start of “no contact” preseason practices for girls and boys varsity basketball and varsity wrestling. Athletes made their return to the J.L. DeCook Gymnasium for a very new experience, and everyone was ready to adapt.

Newberry Girls Basketball Varsity Coach Jim Dzelak led his ladies in their return to practice. Girls basketball programs were able to start practicing back in November, before state shutdowns and executive orders halted the season. Dzelak had to find a way to socially distance his team in a sport that often makes that difficult.

The Newberry boys will have a little bit harder time trying to separate during their preseason practice period. Almost 30 boys showed up for the first day of their new season, with deep numbers across both the JV and varsity levels. Boys Varsity Coach Kenn Depew, who is also Newberry’s Athletic Director was still trying to put plans in place at the last minute. He and JV Coach Nate Moulton addressed the issues from the start. Depew lined everyone up, went through COVID screening protocols, emphasized the spacing guidelines, then broke his kids up into small pods of three or four players to limit the possibility of larger groups getting in each other’s way.

Despite the challenges, Depew said the kids were ready and excited. “The kids just want to play,” he said. “They don’t care. They just want to get out there.” Once the season actually starts, the boys could be busy. Depew says the opportunity is there for Newberry to play as many as 17 games this season.

The defending district champion Newberry wrestling team spent their opening practice getting things prepped. Team members and coaches hauled in the mats and had them lifted up to the balcony where they will practice next to the weight room. The wrestlers also organized and cleaned the practice area, and went over preseason practice plans. They’ll face a unique start to the season, as the no-contact rules will make it impossible for them to prepare traditionally. Still carrying high hopes and great numbers, the wrestling team hopes they can ramp things up as soon as possible.

Under the latest guidelines from the MHSAA and the MDHHS, winter sports that are deemed high contact must limit activities for the first two weeks of their practices. Basketball, wrestling, and hockey are all deemed high contact. Teams were allowed to return to practice starting Monday, as long as all athletes participating wore masks, maintained social distancing, and schools followed state COVID screening protocols including symptom checks and temperature screenings.

As of now, full contact practices can start in basketball on February 1, with the first games set for February 4. The MHSAA Representative Council also voted to push back postseason play, allowing teams to make up missed games that originally were scheduled to start in early December. The District Tournament for both boys and girls will be the week of March 22, with each side playing on alternating days. The tournaments will advance traditionally through regional and quarterfinal games leading up to the semi-finals and finals concluding April 7-10.

Wrestling can also ramp up contact starting February 1, but can’t hold competition until Feb 8. Districts will be the week of March 15 with regionals the following week. Team semi-finals will be March 31 with the Team Finals April 2 and 3. As of this time, spring sports teams will be able to begin practices starting March 15.