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Area high school teams return to practice

OBSERVER Photo by Matt Spielman Falconer/Cassadaga Valley goalkeeper Grace Lundmark turns aside a shot during the Golden Cougars’ first practice of the season Monday at Falconer Central School.

Area high school student-athletes returned to their fields of play Monday for the first day of fall sports practices.

The season was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, not starting until nearly a month after initially planned.

“It’s a great feeling,” Southwestern senior Drew Keppel said about his boys soccer season starting. “I was a little unsure for a little bit over the summer. It kind of had me nervous, but it feels great to be back out here. It’s not ideal circumstances, but it’s a great feeling to be back on the field with the team.”

Fall sports classified as high risk by the New York State Department of Health — namely football and volleyball — won’t even be played this fall, instead moving to a spring start date of March 1.

But soccer, cross country, tennis and girls swimming all got underway Monday.

OBSERVER Photo by Matt Spielman Maple Grove’s Nick Golando makes a pass during a drill at practice Monday.

“We got canceled from school for two weeks and I thought it was just going to be a little vacation,” Keppel said. “Spring sports got canceled, but it never entered my mind that it might affect fall sports until we got a little deeper into the summer.”

At Southwestern, players wore masks and stayed socially distanced as much as possible during the opening hour of practice that was reserved for conditioning drills.

“We have to embrace it. Us older kids have to show the younger kids this is what we have to do to play,” Trojans senior Max Vaughn said of varying protocols. “Hopefully we can keep everyone safe. Every game is going to be a blessing to be able to go out, not knowing if it’s going to be your last.”

On Dutch Hollow Road, Maple Grove’s boys team participated in passing drills utilizing smaller groups of seven or eight boys instead of the entire team at once.

“The mask is definitely going to be a challenge that all teams are going to have to overcome,” Red Dragons senior Nick Golando said. “The fact that we are out here and we have our season is nice.”

The Falconer/Cassadaga Valley girls had their bags spread 6 feet apart in order to keep their distance before practice, after practice and during water breaks.

Frewsburg’s girls got a later start as the sun began to set behind Robert H. Jackson Elementary School. Most of the early drills during the Bears’ practice had the girls working with a partner passing the ball or dribbling back and forth from at least a 6-foot distance.

Schedules are still being finalized around the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Athletic Association. The league schedules are largely set in stone, but schools are still attempting to fill between four and eight nonleague openings throughout the fall.

“We’re going to approach every game with the same mentality,” Vaughn said. “We are a team and need to show leadership throughout. It’s going to be different, but we’re going to do the best we can to make it normal.”

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association has already canceled any regional or state championship play meaning the highest level of play teams will compete at will be Section VI championships.

Head coach Cara Abbey’s Maple Grove boys won the Section VI Class C championship last fall before losing in the Far West Regional game.

“This year we were hoping to go pretty far. Last year we won sectionals and it was the first time we got to Far West Regionals in a while,” senior Adam Marsh said. “This year we could’ve done it again, so it hurt to hear that.”

“I was really hoping that we could make a push for states and this could be the year. My senior year, the ideal situation that every high schooler wants,” Golando said. “Sectionals are still something for us to work for … that’s obviously the goal, but especially after the season we had, making it to regionals, that was the next step.”

But on Monday, the thought of playing in sectional playoffs seemed just fine for a majority of the student-athletes and coaches.

“You just have to be optimistic and take what you can get. I’m trying to preach to these kids … take it a day at a time,” Keppel said. ” … We’ve been doing optional captains’ practices here and there over the summer, but it’s just not the same. It’s a better feel out here with your coach and the whole team.”

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