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Basketball in the Season of COVID-19

By Lauree Padgett Exclusive to Haddonfield[dot]Today

Photo: Four of Haddonfield’s five starters from this season are juniors and will be back on the court in December. Left to right, Tom Mooney, #11 (holding the ball); Matt Leming, #21; Matthew Guveiyian, #4; and Carson Wolfe, #2. Photo by Lefteros Banos, Athletic Director

When the Haddonfield boys basketball team lost, rather soundly, to Camden in the Group 2 South Jersey championship last March 9, the term “COVID-19” was just getting into the everyday vernacular of our country and the world. No one could have expected that, 2 days later, just as all the teams that had made it to the state semifinals were preparing to take to the court for the thrill of advancing to and participating in the state championship games, all sports—from professional to collegiate and high school on down—would come to a screeching halt. As improbable and impossible as that shutdown seemed at the time, that was just the beginning of a year that often would make people feel like they were trapped in a nightmare they couldn’t wake up from or were forced to be characters in some combined sci-fi–horror movie that never got to the closing credits.

I was lucky that my job as managing editor for a publishing company in Medford never missed a beat. I started working from home on March 17 and have now been doing so for more than a year. I think early on, most of us expected that by summer 2020, life would be back to normal. Discussions with my boss and then an announcement from my church, both in the middle of summer, came as a one-two punch: My boss, also the president of the company, said he did not see most people coming back to work until there was a vaccine, and the leaders of my church made the decision to keep doing virtual services through 2020, which meant no in-person Christmas celebrations. Although my friends and family largely remained unscathed in any serious way from COVID-19, for which I am profoundly grateful, the thought of being mostly isolated (I am single and live on my own) indefinitely hit hard. Then at some point as summer turned into fall, I had a sinking thought: Suppose there wasn’t going to be a 2020–21 high school basketball season?

Basketball, hands down my favorite sport, although baseball comes in a close second, has been the highlight of my winter for decades. It makes the short days and cold, long nights bearable and gives me something to look forward every week from mid-December to at least early March. When I’m asked, “What’s your favorite season?” I reply, “Basketball.” What would get me through a COVID winter, I wondered, if basketball didn’t happen at all?

As I wrestled with this possibility, I tried to hold out contacting our favorite (not to mention South Jersey’s best) coach, aka Paul Wiedeman, until November. I came close, but I caved and emailed him on Oct. 30 after I had heard that players’ parents might be in the stands and hoped press might also be allowed. As usual, I got a quick reply that said, in part: “As of today, there will not be any fans, including parents, allowed in the gymnasium for games. The state is going to revisit this policy before the season begins. I do not know if the media can come to games either. It’s going to be a delicate balancing act trying to complete an indoor winter season. I do believe each home game will be live-streamed by the Athletic Department.” He added that my streak (of attending at least one home game a year since 1969) was going to be seriously tested, but noted, keyboard in cheek, that since there would be no playoffs again this year, the Dawgs would be the reigning Group 2 state champs for the 4th year running. Lefty Banos, the HMHS AD, also confirmed the no- fans-in-the-stands status later in November: “I am sorry but as of now we do not plan on having any people at games besides players, coaches and refs.” He told me if anything changed, he would let me know.

At some point before 2020 came to its inglorious end, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy did announce that indoor high school sports could resume with very limited capacity in the gyms and other venues. For Haddonfield basketball, that meant that practices were to start up in early December and the first game was listed on the schedule as being an away game on Friday, December 18 versus Haddon Township. That never happened. The new plan was that the season would start on January 11 with the first game on January 26.

When I checked in with the coach on January 18 for a roster, this I got this unwelcome update: “So far we have successfully completed 7 days of practice uninterrupted. Our opening game against Haddon Township on January 26th has already been postponed and moved back to February because of COVID concerns on their part. Fams are still not allowed to be in the gym except for essential personnel. I do not think that is going to change this season.” Ending on an upbeat note, Wideman told me that the players were practicing hard and were “just excited to be in the gym playing basketball.”

I was also excited to unexpectedly get another email from Lefty on Jan. 19. It was short and very sweet: “No fans but we are allowing press with media credentials at our home games.” I quickly alerted David Hunter I would need a new badge and shared the good news with the Dawgs’ coach, who quipped, “The streak continues.”

But COVID wasn’t finished upending the season. On January 23, I learned that a JV Dawg had tested positive, and since freshman, JV, and varsity practiced together, everything basketball-related, including obviously games, had to be put on hold for 2 weeks. February 5, the players were allowed to be together again, which did not give them much time to prepare for what would finally be their first game of the (2020–) 2021 season, that twice postponed away matchup against Haddon Township.

Amazingly, Haddonfield ended up playing all 15 of its allotted games, although more than a few times, before actually happening, the opponents for a game changed, sometimes more than once. The Dawgs would go 12–3. After losing their first two Colonial Conference games to Haddon Township and Sterling, the team went on to win 12 out of their next 13, losing only one more time on the buzzer to Woodrow Wilson.

I have already done weekly recaps of the games themselves, but this season seemed to deserve one more article with the main theme being: Were those 15 games and all that transpired on and off the court to compete in them worth it? To get a variety of perspectives, I went to Paul Wiedeman, Lefty Banos, Mark Hershberger, Jeff Holman, and Dawg senior Justin Kasko. Each of them, along with my own experiences, helped me come up with an answer.

How COVID-19 affected the 2020–21 season goes back to the summer and fall. As Wiedeman put it, “The normal routines of preseason basketball heading into the 2020–2021 season were severely disrupted by the COVID-19 guidelines and protocols set by the state of New Jersey. In the past, we would have summer workouts twice a week at the high school, and our team would participate in the Haddon Heights summer league. We did not meet in person the entire offseason. … As a coaching staff, we felt it was in the best interest not to have any contact with the players because of the virus. We did, however, put [together] personal workouts that included skills and drills as well as conditioning.”

Justin Kasko told me, “Not having the summer practices and our normal fall league was definitely a large challenge for the team. For me personally, I took the cancellation of both as a sign to get out and work on my game” He acknowledged, however, “personal workouts just aren’t the same as official practices and preseason leagues, and those are crucial times for our offense and chemistry to build, which was a major challenge for the team overall.”

There was a bit of an upside, although I don’t think he’d call it a plus, for Kasko being on his own to prepare for the season. “This off-season, I was motivated to put the most work in as I could. … Putting in the offseason work is a regular thing for athletes at Haddonfield, especially our basketball program.” He said that going into his senior year combined with lots of downtime due to COVID from last year, he was extra motivated in his offseason workouts. Kasko also confirmed something I suspected from watching his shot choices this season: “My three-point shot was definitely one of my main off-season focuses.” And it paid off. In those 15 games, he made more treys than he did (or possibly even attempted) the previous season, and they often came at crucial points in a game.

Kasko admitted that the news about the shortened season was tough to take. “When Coach revealed our 15 game, no-playoffs schedule to the team, it was 110% rough to hear as a senior. Being told that you won’t be able to compete in a high-stakes playoff game again is a hard pill to swallow, and definitely made me reflect on the playoff games I got to play in last year a lot more. Although it was pretty disappointing to hear ‘no playoffs,’ I was relieved to finally have confirmation of any type of season, which was a bit of a silver lining.”

That silver lining still had some dark clouds when the season started even later than anticipated. As Wiedeman saw it, “The 2-week COVID quarantine to begin our season was just another challenge our program had to deal with that was frustrating for the players and coaches.” Kasko added, “When we got shut down at the beginning of the season, it was a gut punch for all of us.” However, his fall soccer season’s playoffs had just been cancelled a few weeks prior, so Kasko had been through it before and knew the 2-week downtime protocol. He said, “I obviously had some doubt, but stayed optimistic about our season following through, and it did!”

 In that 2-week COVID-19 detour, the team and the coaches met together with Google Meets just to keep the players engaged with each other and to go over some concepts and plays. That wasn’t exactly an ideal way to get ready for the first game. “It is not the same as practicing on the court and getting the continuity and conditioning that help our team compete,” Wiedeman explained. “It definitely was a factor leading into our games against Haddon Township and Sterling. We were a little rusty, especially with our shooting and knowing our plays and where we should be on the court with our execution.”

It was that lack of practice time that Wiedeman felt was the hardest part of the season. “What has made our teams compete so well over the years was our ability to out execute other teams by knowing their schemes and personnel. We did not have that luxury this year, as our season was very truncated.

Kasko saw the lack of practices impacting the team in another way. “[B]etween the cancellation of summer practices and preseason leagues as well as the postponement of our season for 2 weeks, it was extremely challenging to build chemistry for us, as we had a lot of new guys this year. It is hard to build rapport with new teammates in general, but having extremely limited time on the court together was extremely impactful on our chemistry in our first few games.”

After those two losses to the Hawks and the Silver Knights, it was almost like a switch had been flipped. That it happened that quickly was a bit unexpected for Wiedeman. “I was surprised how well the team started to gel and play so well together to finish out the season. As stated earlier, we did not really have much time practicing and sharpening our skills and preparing for each opponent. I give all the credit to the players for being so resilient and playing so hard every single game. They were a very competitive group of players who really enjoyed playing with each other.”

One of the questions I asked Kasko had to do with what I saw as his heightened energy on the court this season, which goes hand in hand with Wiedeman’s overall assessment of the team. “I think the aggressiveness definitely came from being held off of the court for a while, but mainly because that’s the way seniors from last year’s team and 2 years ago taught me how to play. I saw how successful that was in winning games the past 2 years, and I just wanted to try and implement that type of aggression and play style to some of the new younger guys this year so that they can play like that next year.” It is worth pointing out that in addition to the stellar coaching staff Haddonfield has had since the mid-70s, this mindset of passing it on from player to player, team to team, year to year, is the reason why Haddonfield is usually the team to beat in the conference, in non-league games, and ultimately in the playoffs.

There are a few more comments from the coach and his senior starter to share, but now I want to switch to how it was for Mark Hershberger, longtime announcer for boys and girls basketball games, this season. He had a mixture of thoughts and reflections.

“Surreal season sitting three rows above my normal spot … and not next to the highly entertaining and always-on-his-game Jeff Holman! A big part of the enjoyment of doing the PA work is talking with Jeff throughout the game. With masks on and at distance … was that really Jeff on the clock? Looked a little like Pierce Brosnan. … Hmmm. Before doing the first game, I had some reservations about how strange it might be barking names and actions to cardboard faces and players only. But, after that first “Dawgs’ ball” or “Threeeeeeee Mooooooooooooney!” I settled back into the routine quite well.

“Of course, the dogs were not turnin’ and burnin’ as in years past and music on time-outs and at the half was not allowed, but, knowing that, on most games (girls and boys), there were anywhere from 100 to 150 people watching the live video stream on YouTube, I felt a sense of importance in letting the viewers know what is happening. In all honesty, as a former high school and college player myself, when you are on the floor working hard, you barely notice the crowd or announcers at all. So, did it affect the players? Probably not. I hope they were pumped up during player announcements, though. Maybe that helped to get their engines running!”

Interestingly, a former player himself in high school and college, Wiedeman did feel the empty gym, and then still minimal fan presence (players were allowed to have 2 family members at each home game starting on February 6, which is the first game I attended as press) did affect the team. “Not having spectators to begin the season … had an impact because of the energy you would get from the crowd was missing. It was easier for me to get the players’ attention on the court and call out our plays. I did miss not having the student body, my family and players family members not being able to be in person every game.”

On that point, Hershberger agrees with the coach. “I missed seeing parents, extended families, friends. …” Some other downsides to this COVID-19 season Hershberger lamented were the missing halftime super shootouts and another year of no banquet for the teams. Maybe there is still hope for that banquet …

Wiedeman expressed another difficult part of the season: “[A]lways thinking in the back of your mind, ‘Will our season be shut down at any moment because of the virus?’” He felt “the players were just so happy and enthusiastic about playing that they did not worry about the virus as much as I did.”

Overall, Hershberger saw a lot of good come out of a season that he and I both initially had some qualms about. “Fifteen games! It could have been three. It could have been zero. For the two senior boys and seven senior girls, it was a solid chance to build lifetime memories of their final year on the court at Haddonfield Memorial. As well as the fabulous Haddonfield cheerleaders” (you have to imagine Hershberger saying this in his deep, resonate, expressive voice) “making more noise this year than most years! It was so desperately needed! So, way to go Dawgs! You persevered! You rocked the Dawghouse!”

As for Wiedeman, he really did not have any specific expectations for this season because of the COVID-19 restrictions that limited the number of games and eliminated postseason games. In his mind, “It was not about winning championships, it was about participation. Our goal was playing all 15 games allowed by the NJSIAA and we miraculously accomplished it.”

From his point of view, it was definitely worth having a 15-game modified schedule even with all the COVID restrictions in place. Why? According to Wiedeman, “It was about giving our student athletes some normalcy by allowing them to have a season. They could see their friends, and I think it helped them physically, mentally, and [in their] social health.” Wiedeman believed that once the team was practicing and playing games, it enabled the players and coaches to at least temporarily forget all about the challenges that everyone’s lives have gone through with COVID.

Wiedeman’s AD, Lefty Banos echoed those sentiments. “We are so happy the boys were able to have a season regardless of how short. Memories will last a lifetime.”

Memories of games gone by was something Justin Kasko mentioned as well. “When I look back on the past two seasons, I can tell you that it went by extremely quickly, and although we’ve had some big-time games over the past couple of years, that win in the playoffs against Heights [the Group 2 South Jersey semifinal win last March that gave Paul Wiedeman his 500th win as the coach of the Dawgs] will always be a great memory, and even though we lost to Camden the next game, just the atmosphere of that game was fun to be a part of and very memorable for me. Additionally, as much as I love the game of basketball and will miss it tremendously, no doubt what I’ll miss the most is going to work and into battle with my teammates.”

Jeff Holman has been a fixture at Haddonfield Memorial High School for about as long as I have been going to basketball games. Not only is he the winningest boys and girls high school tennis coach in the country, he has been an English teacher (if you like my writing, you can thank him in large part) and is now a guidance counselor. When I have gotten feedback from him in the past for my articles, it’s usually about what makes Haddonfield teams and players excel or Paul Wiedeman’s coaching abilities so exceptional, since he’s witnessed both through the years from his vantage point as the scoreboard operator. This time, I wanted to know what he thought about winter sports such as basketball taking place during COVID-19.

Here is what he told me: “I do believe the benefits of having a basketball season clearly outweighed the risks. I make that comment as one of Paul Wiedeman’s HMHS colleagues, as the counselor for many of the players in the basketball program, as the clock operator at home games, and as a coach who was fortunate to have a fall season after COVID-19 cancelled all spring sports. Unquestionably, there is a connection between exercise and physical and mental health. The 2021 basketball season not only kept the players physically active, but also provided an antidote to the isolation of virtual learning by enabling the players to stay connected with their friends, an opportunity that the seniors and any athletes who lost the 2020 spring athletic season especially appreciated. I am certain that the players along with their coaches and parents are proud of the team’s achievements: improving substantially throughout the season, winning 12 of the last 13 games, and overcoming the challenges that the pandemic presented. These athletes will never forget the 2021 season and will proceed through life with an enhanced sense of resilience and self-efficacy because of everything they accomplished.” 

It seems fitting to let the Dawgs’ senior starter have the final words in response to my “Was it worth it?” question. “No matter how many games we had played or how many practices we had completed this year, my answer wouldn’t change, and that answer is that it wasn’t a waste of a season at all. Although we didn’t get to compete at the level we wanted to, it was still a blast being with my teammates out there every day and trying to pass off as much as I can to the young guys for the coming years.” Kasko just completed campus trips to University of Pittsburgh and University of Dayton, his two top choices, last weekend. While he will not be competing at the varsity level in college wherever he ends up, he “will 100% be playing club or intramural sports.” He will also be keeping up his skills in basketball, soccer, and baseball, the three sports he has played at HMHS.

So, it seems that no one I interviewed has any doubts that this shortened hoops season, played in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, was anything but worth it. And even though I watched 10 out of the 14 games (it would have been 15 had West Deptford had someone streaming the game Haddonfield played on their court—just sayin’) from the comfort of my own home, the four games I was able to watch live had added meaning, and not just because it kept my attendance streak alive. It brought me some much-needed normalcy in a year that has been anything but. Thanks to all those who made this possible, from Lefty Banos and Paul Wiedeman and his coaches and players, to Mark Hershberger, the multi-talented Jeff Holman (or was that really Pierce Brosnan?), and the Haddonfield cheerleaders, as well as the guys who scanned my temperature at the hallway outside of the gym, and all the parents who came out to support their boys. You were bright lights in the winter of our discontent. I can’t wait for a full season to start this December!