High school hoops season set to tip off in early 2021 … or not?

Westfield’s Javi Santos (23) attempts to outleap the competition as the Bombers tip off against the Commerce Red Raiders in a 2017 high school boys basketball game at Holyoke Community College. There will not be any tip-offs during the 2020-21 season as one of several rules changes adopted by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association due to the coronavirus outbreak. (THE WESTFIELD NEWS FILE PHOTO)

WESTFIELD – Although the high school basketball season has only been delayed by four or five weeks until early 2021, local hoops teams may not tip off for quite some time.
That is because one of the modifications made by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s COVID-19 Task Force for basketball bans tip-offs for the 2020-21 season.
Although high school games typically involve just an opening tip-off, there are several other rules changes and modifications – some major, some minor – that players and coaches will need to implement during practices and game days.
“I think it’s just a matter of being as safe as possible,” Westfield High School boys basketball coach Josh Balestracci said. “Everybody will try to follow the guidelines and have a competitive season so the seniors can enjoy their senior year.”
Jump balls will be replaced with a throw-in at the division line. Instead, a coin toss will be used to determine which team is awarded the ball to start the game.
In-bounds plays under the hoop are also not allowed under the sport’s new guidelines and rules changes. Westfield Technical Academy’s boys basketball team lost two games last year where teams won on last-second plays of that nature.
Other rules changes which will be emphasized or enforced include the substitution process, defense, a 5-second rule, free throws, out-of-bounds plays, the end-of-game fouling process, loose balls, inbounds plays and throw-ins.
To minimize the amount of time that opponents are face to face on the court, officials will be instructed to emphasize NFHS “Rule 9-10-1-1” which states “A player shall not, while closely guarded: A. In his/her frontcourt, hold the ball for five seconds or dribble the ball for five seconds … (and) B. In his/her frontcourt, control the ball for five seconds in the area enclosed by screening teammate.”
“That (rule) has always been in place,” coach Balestracci said. “Now there will be an emphasis on it so there is not close-guarding contact to limit (potential) exposure to the coronavirus.”
Another point of emphasis involves the freedom of movement. Officials will be expected to enforce the rule that defenders will not physically impede the progress of off-the-ball offensive players.
To limit congestion and contact during free throw situations, free throw lanes will be limited to four players. On two or three shot fouls, free throw lanes will remain empty and players may only enter lanes prior to the final attempt. For one-and-one and single free throw attempts, all four players may position themselves on the first attempt.
“Free throws with no one on the line will be like a technical foul,” Westfield Technical Academy High School boys basketball coach Kyle Dulude said. “Whether or not it hurts or helps players, we won’t be able to reflect about it until afterwards.”
In order to avoid unnecessary contact while managing time at the end of a game, a team representative will be required to notify the official if they are planning to foul a player receiving the inbounds pass. Once the defensive team lightly tags the receiving offensive player, the official will stop the play and administer a foul.
Another point of emphasis will be loose balls and tie-ups.
Loose ball and tie-up situations will be whistled dead with play stopped to limit close contact between players. On all throw-ins/inbounds plays, defenders will be required to maintain a distance of six feet from the player inbounding the ball.
Although multiple substitutions can be made, only one player from each team may report to the scorer’s table when the horn sounds. Players must enter at the scorer’s table and utilize hand sanitizer.
As was the case with fall sports, masks are required for all players, coaches, game officials, and fans. There will be no cheerleaders. Locker rooms and concession stands will be closed at all basketball games this season. Social distancing practices will be enforced.
“Safety starts with the coaching staff,” Balestracci said. “We need to set a good example for the kids with bench spacing, time outs, huddles, and make sure we are all wearing masks.”
Basketball was not the only sport that the MIAA voted recently to approve for the high school sports winter season. Ice hockey, swimming and diving, and skiing have also been given the green light. Although a Dec. 14 start date was agreed upon by the MIAA, the Pioneer Valley Interscholastic Athletic Conference, which governs high school teams all throughout Western Massachusetts, delayed the season’s official start date until Jan. 4, 2021.
Indoor track now joins football in the floating “Fall II” season, and wrestling was moved to spring.
“Having already gone through a COVID season with students,” coach Dulude said, referring to his fall season as coach of the Westfield Tech boys soccer team, “I know from the conclusion of the soccer season, any season is a good season. Even though it is a shortened schedule, you get to play games. It allows the students to feel some normalcy.
“With soccer, like with basketball,” he said, “social interaction is valuable. Players push each other to become better, to have the best senior moment. If not a senior, then it’s about development. Every season you want to get better. It (highlights) the importance of teamwork.”
Despite all the uncertainty as to how the new changes will play out on the court, one coach emphasized a level playing field.
“Everyone is playing by the same rules,” Balestracci said. “We will put our kids in the best position to have the best success on the court, and be safe.”
Westfield Bombers girls basketball coach Dylan Willey agreed.
“(Basketball) is a super tough sport to try to modify,” Willey said, “so it would be very difficult to have it be perfect. I think the MIAA came up with rule changes that are fair for coaches to follow. We would all love to play a full regular season but health is much more important than any high school basketball game.”
It is still unknown at this time whether or not the Southwick Rams will play ball.
The Southwick School Committee, which also serves the Tolland and Granville areas, ultimately canceled the fall high school season due to coronavirus concerns. They are expected to vote on the winter season Dec. 15.
St. Mary’s principal/athletic director Matt Collins said the Saints will play all of its games on the road if it means having a season, and has remained upbeat despite all of the uncertainty.
Said Collins: “I am optimistic … that we will have a shortened season just like we did in the fall (and) that the coaches and players will follow the sport-specific rule modifications.”

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