• A'Don Allen

Coaching through covid

Updated: Feb 27

It seemed like it was finally their time. March 5th, 2020. A 39-19 run over the middle 2 quarters in the Section IV, Class AA championship game, cemented the Elmira Express Girls Basketball team’s 4th consecutive Sectional Title. They looked primed to finally make the State Championship Run that had eluded this group of seniors. Their nemesis, Section 1’s Ossining Pride, had graduated their 3 stars and Elmira’s 3 senior stars were ready to add the missing piece to their amazing legacy. But fate, decided to play the cruelest of jokes on the Lady Express and every high school athlete in the area.


I was bummed as I just sat down to watch St. John's in the Big East tournament and we were up by 8 points at the half when they shut everything down. I understood it, I supported it, but I did not want that to happen although it was the right decision at the time.”-Robert Kelly-Waverly Varsity Girls Basketball Coach

March 2020. The Nation became prisoner to the COVID 19 or Coronavirus. Right now, COVID has claimed the lives of over 400,000 Americans and has wreaked havoc on the livelihood of millions of Americans, including high school student-athletes. In an effort, to slow down the spread of the virus, states and county and municipalities shut down everything, including schools, which in turn, shut down high school athletics. The shutdown ended seasons, careers, and left doubts about the future. Including the chance for teams like the Lady Express hoops team, to achieve heights they had strived for. “My first thought was first one of disappointment, then quickly turned into sadness”, says Elmira City School District Athletic Director Thomas Morrell. “I felt so bad for all the athletes who were just into their first week of spring sports, but we had player and teams who missed out on the opportunity for a regional and/or state championship. I immediately thought of the Express girls’ basketball team, who have been knocking on the door to a state championship in years past, and now that group of seniors were ready to finally make that next jump to the state final four. I thought of the girls bowling team who was coming off a Section IV championship, who now had girls getting a chance to go to the state tournament to compete for a state championship. Then I couldn’t help but feel terrible for all those seniors in spring sports who were going to miss their second semester of their senior year, all the games, all the activities, prom, trip, etc. With all, I did understand the reasoning to why the shutdown happened. Our country was in the beginning stages of a worldwide pandemic, and we all had to so what was best for all our students and staff to keep them safe.”

At the time it didn't affect us so much because we were out of season, but I felt bad for the teams that were affected, especially the seniors. At the time I never would have thought that it would continue as long as it has, including into the fall, etc.” -Elmira Express Girls Soccer Coach Zach Sarno

The Days of High School athletics being a strictly in-season sport, are long gone. The competitive nature has dictated a change in philosophy. Coaches and players work all year long, honing their craft. But with the COVID-Shutdown, sports in general were shutdown. It wasn’t just workouts; coaches couldn’t meet with their athletes in person. Players were forced to Zoom meeting, cell phones and working independently to prepare for a season, they weren’t sure they were going to have. “I stayed engaged with my players through text messages and emails. I would occasionally see one or two of them when I played golf and we had a quick chat to see how things were going.”, says Waverly’s Coach Kelly. In this age of technology coaches use cell phones to do most of their communicating with their student athletes. So as the shutdown began it was only natural to continue utilizing that method. Elmira Express Boys Head Coach Ryan Johnson says that he continued to speak weekly with his athletes. “We weren’t allowed to have contact with the kids, but I sent texts daily and weekly. I would give them individual skills and drills, cardio workouts, speed, and agility workouts to work on. I also tried to stay as positive as possible and very hopeful.”

“The last day of our spring practices where coaches could meet in person with the players, they all made sure they had the most up to date contact information, including phone numbers and email”, said Morrell “We then had coaches develop daily and weekly workout plans for the players to stay engaged. Originally, this was a two-week shutdown, so the coaches all worked on two-week plans, for workouts players could do at home, using minimal equipment, just to stay prepared when they come back to play. Once we found out that the shutdown was going to go into May and June, we then started to do more virtual workouts. The athletic department then worked on virtual senior recognition videos, to give all the seniors a nice send off. We also did a virtual sports banquet, where we recognize all the award winners for all the teams, as well as the overall award winners, including Male and Female Athletes of the Year.”

For Elmira Express Girls Soccer Coach Zachary Sarno, summer workouts are crucial as being a fall sport, getting his girls ready to begin in August in a normal year is routine. With the pandemic not allowing him to have contact he had to take an entirely different approach. He put the onus on his players to get better with his control. “I basically gave players in the program workout ideas they could do on their own, and in small groups if they did it safely and their parents and families were ok with them meeting somewhere to do them.”


“Initially I thought that we would only be shut down for a short time until the initial surge was over, I was unprepared for how fear can affect a nation, and how truly unprepared our society was at the time.” Express Girls Basketball Coach Jake Dailey

Initially, most experts thought the shutdown for schools and athletics would be lifted in time for the fall sports season. So, most coaches were prepping their players and teams for fall sports. However, the numbers began to spike as the summer turned into fall and Section IV made the tough choice to not play sports beginning in the fall of 2020. The lack of being able to have contact with athletes became tougher by the minute and the fear began to turn into frustration for the coaches. “Kept in touch with them the best I could, was hard cause everything was shut down and so off limits, so it was not easy, and even harder on the kids, especially as the fall hit, and other sections were playing, and we were not.” Said Sarno. The toughest part of the shutdown in the fall was the uncertainty but also the fact that other sections, including Section IV to the West of Section IV did play a fall season. Even more frustrating was the waiting. Schools, Sections, were waiting with bated breath to be able to provide some normalcy for their students and coaches. Restrictions, plans, and procedures were being made, adjusted, and tinkered with, on the off chance that any day, the CDC, or any of the alphabets in control, would give the word to allow sports to continue. There was hope that the state would have made the call by early November, but in Section IV it wasn’t until January 2021, that the state finally made the call, but the call wasn’t 100% the call students and coaches were waiting for. The call was to allow workouts, which, while better than nothing, still wasn’t “Competition” but the sound you may have heard on February 1st, was relief, all sports would be able to begin. In that moment, it felt like normalcy was on its way. Elmira Girls Basketball Coach Jake Dailey is happiest for the students. “Can’t wait for the sights and sounds of a gym full of kids chasing their dreams, in our sport and others.”


“I find it a blessing to have whatever game schedule we have as I believe these students/athletes needed it from a physical standpoint and an emotional standpoint. And selfishly, I also need a return to sports. Restrictions, we will handle them as stated and be thankful to have a season.” -Waverly High School Girls Basketball Coach Bob Kelly

The World of 2021 will look like no world we have ever seen. The schematics of a return to normalcy come with restrictions. Athletics are no different. Your favorite athletic sport is going to look vastly different. Masks, social distancing on the benches, and the toughest part, at least in the beginning, no spectators. In place is a step-by-step plan that gets kids back playing, but also continues to monitor the virus and keeps the kids and coaches safe. Morrell says “I feel that the plan we have worked out with district administration and county officials, is a very thorough and safe plan, following all NYSDOH, NYSPHSAA and local county guidelines. Watching the workouts, practice, and contests over the past month or so, seeing that all coaches and athletes are taking this seriously and following the guidelines, it’s apparent that we are all being safe for our teams and families. We have also been administering COVID testing in schools and for athletes, including students and staff, and with an extremely low number of positive cases. The numbers show that the guidelines and the plans for the schools are working.” In this situation, there is quite a bit of responsibility put on the coaches and administration. There must be daily screenings, temperature checks, practicing social distancing when appropriate and always wearing masks. “I am excited, but also nervous a little bit about all the restrictions about doing something wrong, or not following something or missing something.” says Sarno. “Certainly, it will look much different and take a lot more attention to detail which can make the job of coaching that much harder. While the coaches are anxious to get back to the field/court, athletics will be secondary this season.” “Safety is our #1 priority and if all coaches are following the guidelines, we should be in good shape moving forward.” says Elmira Boys Basketball Coach Ryan Johnson. “My biggest concern is someone getting sick and taking it home to their families.” Wins and losses will not be at the forefront this season. It’s definitely about the students. “Can’t wait for the sights and sounds of a gym full of kids chasing their dreams, in our sport and others.” Says Elmira Girls Varsity Coach Jake Dailey. “Biggest concern is for the athletes’ safety, their immediate and long-term safety. Second concern is that we are extremely focused on the athletes while competing with the masks on, and what potential effects this will have.”


“Be appreciative to have the opportunities to compete and play a game(s) that we enjoy playing. An appreciation for others that may be going through tough times. An appreciation of having the opportunity of having high school athletics. I would say that's a positive.” –Bob Kelly, Waverly Girls Basketball Coach

328 days passed from March 11, 2020, when the State shut down sports indefinitely and February 1st, 2021 when sports could resume. It was almost an entire calendar year for kids to not pursue their dreams. A calendar year where coaches couldn’t see their athletes’ eye to eye. A year of no wind sprints, a year of no whistles, a year of no tangible growth. But most coaches feel that despite no face-to-face contact, the lockdown/pandemic may serve as a learning tool. “The kids have learned to deal with adversity and not take anything in life for granted.’’, says Ryan Johnson. “Great family time as well, which is the most important thing in the world, in my opinion.” Ryan continued, “They will be stronger, more resilient, and more compassionate when it's all said and done.”

Tom Morrell thinks that there are big positives all around, not just with the student-athletes, but with coaches and parents as well, and society in general.

“One of the positives to come out of this pandemic would be the ability to communicate more efficiently. We all had to be creative in the beginning, how we were making contact and communicating with the players and families. That carried over to this school year, with virtual learning, combined with in person learning, as well as virtual practices, parent meetings and information sessions. Our attendance for our informational sessions and parent meetings has been higher this year than many years in the past. I also think coaches had to be more creative with their lesson plans. This allowed coaches to evolve and think differently than how they coached in years past. Change is sometimes hard, be it for a child or an adult, however, change is constant and, in many cases, makes people more informed and a well-rounded person. This pandemic has taken so many lives and hurt so many families, in so many ways. COVID has kept us home in quarantine or isolation and that has influenced those who are fighting depression or social-emotional issues. There have been many cases of social injustices over the past 10 months. These are all terrible, terrible issues that our country faces right now. However, these issues now have more awareness than ever before. So many people have stepped up to help fight for social injustices, or poverty, or mental illness. Fighting these country wide issues would be a positive, and a step in the right direction.”

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