This is truly the winter of our discontent when it comes to weather and high school sports schedules. The seemingly weekly snowstorms in Rhode Island have created a backlog of makeup games in all sports, none more so than in boys’ basketball, where a compressed schedule this season necessitated a natural three-game week even before Mother Nature threatened to turn the month of February into an NBA-like marathon for high school student/athletes.
Area basketball coaches are telling anyone who will listen that the pile of makeup games hanging over their teams’ heads will have an impact on how the season plays out. The regular season ends Feb. 11 and the race to the finish line is being lost to the elements. Some playoff teams that rely on a short player rotation are going to be worn out by the crammed schedule they face over the next 16 days.
The brand new “open” tournament that debuts in March is – along with the snow – the major reason why teams are forced to play so many games in such a short time. The Rhode Island Interscholastic League should be commended for approving the open tournament but its methodology was certainly open to criticism, long before the weather started to mess with the compressed schedule.
The most expedient method for adding a new tournament would have been to play fewer games during the regular league season. But the league is committed to a full schedule for its teams, not in in boys’ basketball but in football, baseball, volleyball and many other sports. Even in this era of a depressed economy and school committees pleading for fiscal restraint, our local high schools and their governing body continue to expand interscholastic sports schedules, always justifying their methods by saying “it’s for the good of the kids.”
Sometimes, I wonder what they are talking about. When Shea High’s boys basketball team played a 7 p.m. game last Thursday night in Westerly, how exactly was that a good thing for the kids? Long bus ride down to Westerly on a school night, through rush hour traffic. Play a hard-fought game (Shea lost by three points to a good Bulldog team), quiet ride back home to school, arriving around 10 p.m., and then heading home.
I’m just picking this one game out as an example of the scheduling stresses that high school athletics put on a young person who might very well be battling to stay competitive in the classroom during daytime hours. Sure, the players probably bring a book along with them, or perhaps their laptop, but how many are going to study on a bus ride with their teammates, many of whom are more focused on winning a game than looking at their homework?
If high school athletic directors, the Interscholastic League, and school committee members in each community were really serious about sticking to a budget while also providing an atmosphere where students have the best chance to succeed in the classroom, perhaps they should investigate whether too many games are being scheduled for their varsity athletes.
Meanwhile, most of our area boys hoop teams have around seven league games left to play before Feb. 11. That’s seven games in 16 days, 14 if you still count Sunday as a natural day off. St. Raphael Academy currently leads Division I-North with a 9-2 record but one wonders if the Saints will be fresh for the playoffs after completing their regular season schedule. The same could be said for every other playoff contender. What meaning do the playoffs have if every team is weary even before the competition begins?
Everyone concedes the Division I playoff field is very competitive this season, thanks to six-time defending state champion Bishop Hendricken coming back to the field for a change. There are probably five teams that could win the D-I title, with St. Raphael among those favored five. Gaining a first-round bye is almost essential to the Saints’ chances because head coach Tom Sorrentine usually goes with an eight-man player rotation and demands full effort on both offense and defense from each of his players.
NBA coaches often get around the grueling aspects of their schedules by resting key players who need the night off due to nagging aches and pains or advancing age. Boston coach Doc Rivers considers it essential that he closely monitor the minutes of his aging Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
Should local high school coaches consider “pacing” their young athletes after their teams clinch playoff berths? Probably not, unless a player is nursing an injury. Let’s face it: these players are 15, 16 and 17 years olds. Okay, maybe 18 years old in rare cases. They are young and resilient physically. Maybe this season will wear on the players more in a mental sense. What? We’re playing again? When do we get a night off?
High school players are playing games more frequently than many college teams. A Big East team like Providence might squeeze 30 games in between mid-November and mid-March. Most high school teams in Rhode Island play 18 league games and five or six non-leaguers in a regular season that starts in early December and now ends on Feb. 11. That’s a lot of games in eight weeks.
Well, all it’s all for the good of the kids. Right? Whether the compressed schedule gives us true division champions in the playoffs is a question only the coaches, athletic directors and players can really answer. Maybe the open tournament will turn into a survival of the fittest, instead of a basketball competition. Last team standing wins.