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'A mix of relief and excitement': Michigan high schools cleared to start competition for winter contact sports

Posted at 10:06 PM, Feb 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-04 22:06:47-05

Michigan coaches and athletes have been conducting physically distanced winter sports practices for weeks but are now jumping at the chance to start competition.

Winter sports get started in the state of Michigan
East Grand Rapids girls basketball (left) and Northview hockey (right) get their non-contact practices started on January 16.

“They’ve been waiting for this news for a while,” Mason High wrestling coach Brian Martel said.

After weeks of uncertainty, it’s finally game on for winter contact sports here in Michigan. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced winter contact sports can start competition on Monday in accordance with COVID-19 prevention guidelines.

One of the main guidelines is that athletes keep masks on at all times, and sports where that's prohibitively hard are being directed to practice regular COVID testing in order to stay eligible for competition.

“I feel great going into our next couple of competitions knowing now what we can and can’t do,” DeWitt High varsity basketball coach Bill Flannerty said.

Elizabeth Hertel, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said that she is excited the state is finally able to take this step for student athletes. Hertel and Whitmer both said the decision is a result of changing COVID rates across the state.

ON Saturday, thousands of parents, coaches, athletes and officials rallied outside of the Capitol building calling for the winter season to start. Whitmer said the rally organized by Let Them Play Michigan did not sway the decision.

'Let Them Play'
High school athletes hold up a #LetThemPlay banner during the 'Let Them Play' rally at the State Capitol building on January 30th.

For student-athletes like coach Martel’s son and Mason High freshman AJ Martel the announcement is bringing some relief.

“Sports is so important … like this whole pandemic in sports teaches you to stay patient and persevere and without sports, I probably wouldn’t be the same person I am in or out of sports,” Martel said.

Coaches are still working to make the uncertainty of a global pandemic into a teaching moment for young athletes. Cassie Kotlarcyzk is the head coach for the Holt High varsity girls basketball program and she says COVID has challenged her as a coach but helped her show gratitude for her team.

“We get to be in the gym. We get to work out. We get to be around each other. It’s really appreciating those moments we have together. It’s trying to focus on the positives of those,” Kotlarcyzk explained.

For DeWitt’s basketball program, this time has been an opportunity to practice mindfulness on and off the court.

“In our program, we never want to look in the rearview mirror. If anything, the only reason to do so is to learn and grow from it,” Flannerty said.

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