'We are lucky': Darien teams prepare in season of uncertainty

Jon Bradley’s Darien boys soccer players have been practicing and conditioning for a few weeks, getting ready for an uncertain fall sports season.

Through it all, the coach is making sure his players see the situation in a positive light.

“My message is clear: We are lucky,” Bradley said. “We are playing and having fun and doing what we enjoy. There are many people in worse positions than us.”

Darien’s fall sports teams kicked off what will likely be a precarious season from start to finish earlier this month, with COVID-19 protocols in place. Practice time has been limited, finally moving to 90-minute sesssions with full team, full contact sessions on Monday, and players and coaches alike have adjusted to a new normal.

Teams had been practicing in cohorts of 10 athletes, which was recommended to the CIAC by the Department of Public Health “for all activities through the first two weeks of school,” and had been limited to one-hour sessions each day, split evenly between conditioning and skills development before Monday’s expanded practices.

Eleven-on-11 tackle football, deemed a high-risk sport by the National Federation of High Schools, was cancelled by the CIAC last week, following a recommendation from the state’s Department of Public Health. Among the possibilities currently being looked at are an 11-on-11 football league run privately, or 7-on-7 competition.

Field hockey, volleyball, soccer, swimming, and cross country teams are moving forward with their seasons.

Practices will expand to two hours on Saturday, Sept. 26, when scrimmages are also allowed, and competition begins on Oct. 1.

“The boys have been fantastic throughout,” Bradley said. “Practices have been a little bit different, but there have been zero complaints and all 83 boys in the program have been working hard.”

The original, one-hour time limit meant coaches and players need to remain focused on getting as much as possible out of a smaller window of time.

“Our practices have been really productive and efficient,” field hockey coach Mo Minicus said. “Knowing that you have that time constraint, there’s really no time for wasting time, so we’ve had these girls moving and it’s actually affording us the time to really focus on conditioning and stick skills.”

Among the protocols in place is a screening test prior to each practice.

Athletic trainer Katie Bryant set up a Google doc to make it easier for coaches to monitor their athletes’ health each day.

According to athletic director Chris Manfredonia, students will answer yes-or-no questions from the CIAC’s “COVID Athletic Monitoring Form” before heading to their respective practices.

It’s a self-screening process for symptoms such as fever or chills, shortness of breath, and loss of taste or smell, and helps get the athletes to be aware of their own health while hopefully mitigating the spread of the virus.

Bradley said he felt it was important to keep student-athletes involved and with that in mind, the boys soccer program is keeping everyone this season.

“As a coaching staff, we made the decision not to cut players this year and we explained the many reasons to the boys,” Bradley said. “The biggest (reason) being that we believe players having a home and an activity after school is so important.”

Darien boys cross country coach Tyson Kaczmarek said his Wave runners have been great given the circumstances.

“We are wearing masks anytime we are not engaged in physical activity,” Kaczmarek said. “We put a lot of thought into our cohorts. With the help of the captains we tried to group people by ability. We ran the risk of having to quarantine an entire cohort, but it looks like it has paid off.

“Being able to train with people of your ability, even if it is one other person, was very important to us.”

Sports can become a refuge for the athletes — a way to get back to a sense of normalcy, even if the situation is still a little different.

“The girls have been awesome,” Minicus said. “They’re so happy to be out there with their friends and teammates, and they’re working hard. Once they step on the field without their masks and they have their sticks in their hands, they’re doing their drills, and they’re doing their stick skills, it’s almost as normal as ever.”

In order to limited teams’ travel time, the CIAC has placed schools in regional pods. Darien will be grouped with rival New Canaan, Greenwich, Westhill and Stamford.

How long the season lasts is uncertain and will depend on what happens with the COVID-19 virus as the fall progresses.

With that in mind, Minicus said athletes need to enjoy the moment.

“It’s a privilege to be playing right now,” Minicus said. “The other scenario would be no sports. So we’re grateful to have the opportunity that’s afforded us to do what we’re doing now.

“Take it one day at a time and be grateful for one more day of field hockey.”

david.stewart@hearstmediact.com; @dstewartsports