Van Buren basketball teams prepare to start season delayed almost a month by COVID

The often long bus rides from one small town to the next are part of the sacrifice made each winter by the players, coaches, parents and fans of Aroostook County high school basketball teams.

So when Van Buren boys’ and girls’ teams travel from the St. John’s Valley south to Danforth on Thursday – a trip that can take up to two hours one way depending on weather and road conditions – this is usually not serious.

This year is a big deal for the Crusaders, who with this trip will become the last college teams in the state to start their 2021-22 regular seasons, which for most schools in the state started near a month earlier on the December weekend. 10-11.

It’s a game night that many around Van Buren weren’t sure it would come to this winter due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns.

“The kids were worried, the parents were worried, the coaches were worried,” said Steve Lapierre, the Van Buren boys’ longtime basketball coach. “We didn’t know how it was going to be, and going forward we still don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re just going to take it day by day. We’re just happy to have a season right now. .

Rising COVID-19 rates in the county in late fall prompted schools in the 24 SAD communities of Van Buren, Hamlin and Cyr Plantation to transition to remote learning from Nov. 19 to Dec. 23, the beginning of the Christmas holidays.

That meant there was no practice for Van Buren basketball teams starting Nov. 22, when teams across the state could begin preparing for the upcoming season as part of of the Maine Principals’ Association winter sports calendar.

A subsequent school board vote allowed Van Buren teams to begin training at the start of the Christmas vacation and a Dec. 28 vote restored schools to in-person learning this week when students return from vacation.

“They voted to allow our children to start training on December 23 because that’s when our distance learning ended, so our school went out at noon that day and later in the afternoon we had practices,” said Matt Rossignol, the former legendary Van Basketball player and coach of Buren who is now the sports administrator of his alma mater.

Since then, it’s been about playing catch-up at Van Buren, a school with an enrollment of 75 students in grades 9-12 and enough basketball players to field varsity teams.

The Crusaders boys’ team had completed six practices and a scrimmage against the junior varsity team at Caribou High School on Tuesday morning, and with the trip to East Grand just 48 hours later, Lapierre was doing his best to further familiarize his players with the team’s offense. and defensive systems.

“Nothing is going to be adjusted,” he said. “What’s going to suffer is the conditioning because you don’t have that three-week period [before games usually start] when you can really work hard on conditioning.

“You’re going to have to make sacrifices here and there because if you want to be conditioned, you probably won’t have as many games and you won’t be as refined in what you do.”

Lapierre welcomed 10 players into practice Monday, up from just five last week.

“We had a few more kids last year, but I’m having a few this year, whether it’s because of COVID or the late start not joining,” he said. declared. “Whatever the reason, we have two or three kids who could probably play but aren’t playing.”

The boys’ roster includes three players with no college experience, but seven players from the 2020-21 squad who finished 11-3 and reached the Aroostook League Division II playoff championship game – a postseason regionalized tournament that replaced the canceled statewide tournament last winter.

“We have a good body back,” Lapierre said. “Hopefully we will be able to compete well during the year. I hope that by the end of the year we will be playing our best ball and that the children will be comfortable with what we are doing. That’s the point.

Freshman varsity girls coach Brian Massey faces an even greater competitive challenge.

Massey ran a limited off-season basketball schedule after being hired in mid-summer, then held Zoom meetings three times a week when practices weren’t allowed during the traditional winter preseason to present his players more to his system.

He hopes to have eight players available Thursday, including an eighth-grader and two others who have never played basketball before.

“Everyone is trying hard, but I understand the situation we’re in,” said Massey, a former Caribou Middle School basketball coach and varsity tennis coach at Près Isle High School.

“There are a lot of things working against us this year, but the girls are positive. They are optimistic. They just want to play. »

Van Buren’s men’s and women’s teams will play 17 of their originally scheduled 18 regular season games, coronavirus and weather permitting.

“The other sporting directors have been fantastic in being willing to do things that normally you wouldn’t do in terms of the calendar,” Rossignol said. “You would never give your kids four games in six days, but the ADs have been very flexible in understanding the situation we’re in and I appreciate that a lot.”

Van Buren’s coronavirus-adjusted schedule is considerably more condensed than usual, as the Crusaders regular season finals are scheduled at home against Wisdom of Saint Agatha on February 9.

That’s 17 games apiece in 35 days, and after removing the five Sundays high school practices aren’t allowed, that means more games than practices once the season begins.

“You just hope the kids react and you don’t have a lot of injuries and you can compete,” Lapierre said. “It will be on-the-job training when we get into the games. You just have to try to figure out what you want to do and be more proficient, and the rest is going to use a lot of early time outs.

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