The delicate balance of maintaining COVID-19 protocols and spread is matched by the desire of local prep athletes and coaches to play their seasons.
EAST LANSING – High school coaches and athletes are ready to do whatever it takes to finish the 2021 winter sports season.
They want to push through it all; the mask-wearing, testing regimens, and abundance of competitions in a short amount of time because, in the end, the opportunity to play outweighs those obstacles.
The real challenge would be to sit at home and do nothing, watching as COVID-19 kept their identity just out of arms reach.
Casen Faustyn, a senior defenseman from Okemos High and Lansing State Journal’s hockey player for 2019-20, said he was "devastated" when his sport received another postponement.
"The morale was just really low on the team," he said. "We didn't really think we were going to have a season … It was really sad; it could have been my last time ever playing hockey; I didn't know if I'd ever play hockey again."
When the season was reinstated on Feb. 11, Faustyn wanted nothing more than to lead his team to the finish line.
Now a couple of weeks into the season, he realizes it won't be easy. Due to the pandemic, Faustyn feels he's been stripped of his ability to build relationships and create team chemistry in a year where togetherness has never been more important.
"I feel a lot more distant to the underclassmen this year, because we haven't been with each other nearly as much," Faustyn said. "When we are, we're in separate locker rooms. I just feel like we're not as close of a group this year than we would have been if we had a full season."
Faustyn continued, "There's a lot of other things that really make high school hockey fun, like being able to dress in our own personal locker room, taking a bus, and having fans at the games that really give it that atmosphere and really get you pumped up for a game. Without those things, you can tell it's hurt the morale of the team."
Samantha Ybarra, the competitive cheerleading coach at Grand Ledge High, echoed those sentiments. After being sidelined for a year, following COVID-19 protocols in and out of the gym have become a huge priority.
Athletes are screened with a series of questions, while their temperature is taken, an occurence for each event/practice Ybarra holds or coaches.
They must always wear masks, continuously use hand sanitizer, and clean their indoors-only cheer shoes with alcohol wipes.
"I think everybody is really aware of where they are going and what they are doing," she said. "The girls really understand that they should not be going to parties…where COVID could spread. I think the girls really value being able to have this season…they are really dedicated, and I think everyone understands how important it is for everyone to be careful, especially at this point when it could just be taken away again.
“...I think that's what helped us keep everybody as healthy as we've been so far. We've been really lucky; we haven't had any issues."
The return of winter contact sports was treated as a victory, but with COVID-19 consistently postponing professional and collegiate contests, the challenge to finish the season began sinking in.
However, the opportunity to compete provided an avenue for youth to overcome adversity and fight for what they love most.
"I obviously wish it was normal," said Kaleb Corser, a senior wrestler at Haslett High. "But at the same time, I'm grateful, even if it is just for a whole month – we still get to wrestle … it gives us seniors some good experience because we got to push ourselves even more. We know that this upcoming tournament or meet could be our last one because you don't know what's going on with COVID."
Wrestling, a sport with unavoidable contact, has testing regimens before every meet. And yet the sport may find itself in murkier waters than hockey or cheerleading.
Haslett wrestling Coach Reymundo Quintero knows his team is ready, but more importantly, feels the wrestlers understand the consequences of going against the grain.
"To us, it's just another hurdle we have to do, but we're okay with it … it's one of those things that's like 'alright, they say we have to do this to wrestle,'" said Quintero. "It's no different than stepping on the mat … For me, it's one of those situations where I just want everybody to stay safe. Wear the mask if you have to wear the mask … you want to see everybody tomorrow.
"I know everybody has their opinion of who can get sick and who can't get sick. My theory is just keep everybody healthy. My guys – I ask them to think about their family members; if they weren't around, how would they feel … we can do this again tomorrow if we can just do this simple thing."