Colorado high school basketball will tip off an asterisk season this week.
The Ouray Trojans and their basketball brothers and sisters will be part of a prep experience significantly modified by COVID-19.
Fewer games, no spectators, rigorous gymnasium safety protocols and masks will mark the 2021 basketball reality in Colorado.
“We are trying to be proactive as we prepare. We need to make sure we are conscious and earnest in our efforts,” said Bernie Pearce, longtime Ouray School director of athletics. “I’m elated for the kids ... to have a chance to play”
Pearce said the school employed a team approach when the Colorado High School Activities Association released guidelines for an adjusted basketball season.
For a time the indoor sports, including basketball, were at risk of cancellation because of the ongoing pandemic. But the CHSAA safety protocols for prep basketball won endorsement from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, opening gym doors for student-athletes.
The season that almost wasn’t started with the first official practices on Monday; the first games are set for next week.
“We are still ... at agent-orange level,” Pearce said of Ouray County’s COVID-19 color designation. “So we are relegated to essential personnel (in the gymnasium for games).”
That means no spectators this season — unless conditions with COVID-19 change drastically.
“We may clarify essential personnel to further mesh with the county’s (orange) status,” Pearce said, adding that school officials will continue to adapt and adjust as necessary this season.
For now, essential personnel for a game include home team (maximum 12 players), three coaches, one trainer, visiting team and coaches, on-court officials, building maintenance and administration.
But plenty of masks.
“Masks ... for everyone,” Pearce said of a primary point of emphasis from CHSAA. “Officials will be in masks, too.”
“Masks will be required for basketball players throughout the games, per (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment),” CHSAA said in its guidelines. All non-athletes involved ... also are required to wear masks in this setting.”
Pearce said he was joined on the Ouray COVID-19 basketball committee by a representative of the school administration, a coach, a parent and head of building maintenance — a former player in the Trojans’ program.
He said they examined overall building management for the gym, including entries and exits. They also assessed air flow and foot-traffic patterns.
For example, he said the school is making arrangements for players to step away from the gym where they can lower their masks and safely catch a breath of fresh air. Those fresh-air routes will be marked for each respective team in different colored tape, Pearce said.
The building preparation includes marking bench seating locations.
“The spacing of 6 feet needs to be applied to the bench areas,” Pearce said. “So we had to reconfigure.”
But, he added, there is plenty of space for appropriate seating with the absence of spectators.
“We’re able to spread out. We’re spacing more liken feet apart,” Pearce said.
He said the Ouray publications class is assisting by preparing laminated signage to direct visiting teams to their respective staging areas at the school.
For the players, Pearce said one of the biggest adjustments will be wearing masks during games.
“We’ve been having ... open gyms. And they’ve been wearing masks,” Pearce said of the Ouray School girls’ and boys’ teams. “For them, I think wearing the masks is a positive resignation; give a little to get a lot.”
First and foremost, he said, they want to play.
“They’re ready to do what they need to do to play,” Pearce said. “It really is amazing how the kids have stepped up. They have been more accepting because they want to play.”
And they’re learning how to properly hydrate while wearing a mask, he said.
“You’re sipping from under the mask; don’t pull the mask down to drink,” Pearce said. “We’re teaching them new COVID safety moves and teaching them moves on the court.”
Teams also will be given additional timeouts in each half to help players breathing through masks.
In addition, there will be no postgame handshakes or fist bumps.
“We’ve been wearing masks while we’re doing (preseason) strength and conditioning,” Ouray senior Audrey Gibbs said. “We have to have the masks on for that. So we’re getting used to it. But at first, it was really hard (wearing a mask).”
She said the players are adjusting to the new routine.
“When we are in games, we are not allowed to take our masks off at all,” Gibbs said. “We have to wear masks in school, too. So that helps.”
She said she and her teammates appreciate the opportunity to play.
“I think we are all really excited to play. We’re willing to do whatever it takes,” she said. “I’m definitely grateful we have basketball.”
Fellow senior Jackson Leo agreed.
“We’re really fortunate to be able to play,” said Leo, who was on the Ouray team that qualified for the state tournament last season for the first time in school history. “We’re getting kind of used to it (mask). We have it on in school.”
He said at times wearing the mask is frustrating, especially when the players are sprinting up and down the court. But the adjustment to the masks is more than worth a chance to play.
Leo said the lack of crowds at the games will be another big adjustment this season.
“It is going to be a change. The crowd sometimes plays a role in how the game goes,” he said.
He acknowledged that it’s easier for the coach to communicate with the players on the court when there’s no crowd noise.
“I bet he’ll like that he doesn’t have to yell over the crowd,” Leo said of boys head coach Adam Trujillo.
The Ouray basketball teams will encounter an abbreviated schedule with 4 regular-season games instead of the usual 19 this year.
Travel, Pearce said, was reduced to include only the standard San Juan Basin League opponents.
There will be no extended trips to places like Hotchkiss, Aspen or De Beque, where the Trojans played last year.
“All the league ADs (athletic directors) have pledged to do the best they can, working together to create a basketball season,” Pearce said, commending the cooperative efforts of Ridgway and the other San Juan schools.
Game nights at Ouray this season will feature additional time between games for sanitizing operations, he said.
The Ouray basketball teams will open the season with nonleague games at Telluride on Jan. 28. Telluride has similar COVID protocols with no spectators allowed.
The Trojans will kick off their home season Saturday, Jan. 3o, by hosting Caprock Academy of Grand Junction.
“No gate (revenue) will be a gigantic problem for us,” Pearce said, adding that the admission funds help with the overall athletic/activity budget at Ouray High School. “That may be overstating it a bit, but it’s been worrying me.”
He said the cost for game officials for three games (one junior varsity game, boys’ varsity, girls’ varsity) can exceed $500, including mileage. Rates for game officials and mileage are established by CHSAA.
If another set of officials is required because of scheduling or travel issues, the cost can reach S600 per night.
The school, with an average of zoo spectators for a three-game night, could generate as much as SL000 in revenue in ticket sales, he said. But that revenue will be lost for this season.
The Ouray gym has a capacity of 367.
“Additional fundraising and budgetary adjustments ... both of those will be explored,” Pearce said. “We ... have a possible fundraising campaign in mind.”
He said the lack of concession-stand revenue also will hurt. The class running the concession stand will lose income. And that revenue previously was shared with the athletic department, he said.
In another COVID-19 modification to the season, there will be no district tournament this year.
Instead, there will be a 24-team state playoff bracket in Class 3A with games starting March 9. Class IA league winners will advance to the state tournament. The remainder of the 24-team bracket will be filled based on power rankings.
The Class 3A state tournament will be March 19-20.