During a normal season, the gym would’ve been rocking Tuesday night when Janesville Parker’s boys basketball team made the short trip up Highway 51 to play Edgerton.
Edgerton High’s pep band would’ve filled the gym with the sounds of Lady Gaga, Neil Diamond, Ozzy Osbourne, the two schools’ fight songs and, of course, the national anthem.
The Edgerton faithful would’ve packed the home section of the bleachers adorned in their Crimson Tide apparel, while Parker fans would’ve surely made the 10-minute trip to see a team chock-full of potential thanks to the return of four starters.
Unfortunately, these are not normal times.
COVID-19 has changed the landscape of athletics at all levels. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens just played an NFL game on a Wednesday afternoon because of COVID concerns.
So as the boys 2020-21 season tipped off Tuesday night for a number of area teams, it was far from business as usual at Edgerton or anywhere else.
The atmosphere at Edgerton was anything but festive. The only people in the gym were the players, coaches, referees, on-site administrators and the Edgerton cheerleading squad. Everyone wore masks, including the players. Team benches turned into folding chairs spaced at least six feet apart. The only sounds you heard streaming on the live feed online—outside of the players’ shoes squeaking on the floor—were the bellowing voices of Edgerton coach Daryl Fox, Parker coach Matt Bredesen and PA announcer Mike Gregory.
I was fortunate to be able to watch the game on a big screen TV thanks to a YouTube live stream provided by Edgerton. Although nothing beats on-site coverage of an event, it was certainly better than no option at all. In fact, at one time I was trying to watch all four Janesville basketball teams in action on four different devices.
So what were my impressions as I watched?
The biggest takeaway was that although coaches and players seemed excited to be back on the court, something was definitely missing. And that something was fans.
Even the pregame introductions seemed lame as players tried to figure out if high-fiving, chest-bumping or simply shaking hands was allowable. Players looked around, at times, like they weren’t sure what they could or couldn’t do.
The opening tipoff was replaced by the visiting team taking the ball out of bounds. I immediately thought back to the Tom Klawitter years at Parker when his nationally ranked teams came out of the locker room to the pounding sounds of Aldo Nova’s “Fantasy” or REO Speedwagon’s “Ridin’ The Storm Out.” And, of course, the light show that preceded it that had the home crowd rocking in anticipation and the visiting fans standing in awe while video recording.
I’m afraid those days are long gone.
Yet despite the restrictions imposed, Fox said simply playing a game in these uncertain times made it all worthwhile.
“I told the boys before the game how grateful we all should be to have this opportunity,” Fox said. “And we can’t thank the school district and the administration enough for giving us the chance to play, especially when kids in Evansville, Madison and so many other places aren’t getting that chance.”
Janesville Craig’s girls team also opened up the season Tuesday night. The Cougars lost 51-50 on a last-second free throw.
Craig coach Kerry Storbakken echoed Fox’s sentiments on simply getting the chance to play. He also said wearing masks may have taken a toll on some players.
“As far as just going out and playing basketball, the game hasn’t changed,” Storbakken said. “But a couple girls said the masks definitely made it harder to breathe. And the social distancing (off the court) will take some getting used to.
“But, it’s still a gift to even be able to play. Everybody knows that.”
All four Janesville teams in action Tuesday lost. The Parker boys and Craig girls lost close games on the road, while the Craig boys and Parker girls stubbed their toes in home losses.
Not being able to practice as a full team certainly hurt all four city teams. The school district is allowing practices to be conducted in pods of four only. The only time teams practiced all together was Monday, the day before the season opener. That means coaches had one practice to try and incorporate offensive and defensive sets in a 5-on-5 setting. Edgerton’s boys not only practice as a team daily but had a scrimmage last Saturday. None of the Janesville teams were allowed to scrimmage.
Fortunately, basketball is back. Whether it stays or not is up to the virus. That’s the new norm.
John Barry is a sports writer for The Gazette. Reach him at email@example.com.