An inside look at a COVID-19 era boys basketball game

Sam Mostow, Advertising & Social Media Editor

basketball court
Mason senior Ryan Fletchall (#2) dribbles down the court as head coach Michael Gilroy and the team on the bench watches. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, chairs on the sideline are spread out to be six feet apart. “[Players] do what is asked and come to work each day ready to get better and that is all I can ask for,” Coach Gilroy said. (Photo by Sam Mostow)

Both the boys JV and varsity basketball games on January 15 against Skyline deserved a proper audience. It’s truly a shame that almost nobody could see them in person.

Skyline won the hard-fought JV game, 29-22, after taking a lead in the second quarter and never turning back. Mason (3-0) defeated Skyline (6-1) in the varsity game, 45-41, powered by senior Bobby Asel’s 22 points but nearly blowing a 26-9 lead from the end of the first quarter.

A Friday night varsity basketball game at the end of the semester before a five day weekend should have been packed. The student section should have been completely full. When Asel hit a long buzzer beater to conclude the first quarter, there should have been a roar from the crowd. Instead, there was dead silence.

The only people in attendance on Friday night were the teams, a few school employees, the national anthem singer, and cheerleaders.

Sporting events for the foreseeable future will take place under the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still raging throughout the world. The few in attendance and players during warmups were required to wear masks and remain spaced apart. Players were encouraged to keep their masks on throughout the game, although most did not.

Even as the pandemic rages and school remains mostly online, basketball provides a sense of purpose and carries immense meaning to players, coaches, and everyone involved.

“It means a lot, especially to the current players and hopefully to the rest of the student body and faculty,” varsity head coach Michael Gilroy added. “To bring a sense of normalcy and to be the first real guinea pigs in seeing if we can figure out the path so that we can all return to in-person school is huge and, quite frankly, an honor. Both the boys and girls basketball teams want to make the entire City of Falls Church proud, and we know people are watching via the live streams.”

coach gilroy on the court
Coach Gilroy shouts instructions at his team. The lack of fans in attendance has barely affected how he communicates with his team. “I’ve always had a loud voice, fans or no fans, [so communicating with players] hasn’t been a problem,” Coach Gilroy said. (Photo by Sam Mostow)

This season is Gilroy’s second as the boys varsity basketball head coach. He became the head coach after years of being an assistant under former coach Chris Capannola.

From his many years of coaching experience, this is a season unlike any other. He and his team undergo daily health screenings and temperature checks. During practices, they take breaks every fifteen minutes to sanitize their hands and equipment. The team can’t use the locker room before games, so they must be completely dressed and ready to go when they board the bus for away games. The laundry list of health and safety protocols, while necessary, can be a burden.

“Players have adapted better than me,” he said. “They do what is asked and come to work each day ready to get better and that is all I can ask for. Coming up with ways to motivate during a pandemic has been a challenge to me thus far. Getting off a two hour bus ride having to be dressed and ready to warm up and play in twenty minutes is not an easy task. Road wins are tough to come by.”

While most of the season is unfortunately different for Gilroy and his players, he still has a reason for his team, the school, and the community to be optimistic: the brand new, state-of-the-art gymnasium.

“I can’t wait to have that new gym filled up. It’s unlike any high school gym in the area, with its open windows on both baselines as well as an open balcony layout. Playing in the Pit [the main gym in the old school], we forgot what it was like to have lights in a gym and to be able to read the numbers on the scoreboard. There is a lot more space, which will be great for all PE classes and will allow FCCPS to hold other events, such as graduations or school dances.”

While the unprecedented nature of the season impacts players and coaches, they weren’t the only ones affected. The cheerleaders at every game had to adapt to the pandemic as well. 

Junior Emma Ward, a member of the varsity cheer squad, noticed the lack of fans makes the gym significantly quieter. She explained that cheerleaders are responsible for filling the gym with noise and their own energy.

“Cheering in the bleachers rather than on the floor is very influential in creating more of our own energy because we can stomp on the bleachers which mimics the noise that the crowd would typically make,” Ward said. “Also, during a regular season, we would only have ten cheerleaders cheering at one time, which meant we had to switch out, but this season all fourteen of us are able to cheer together for the entire game.”

Ward also explained that cheerleaders had to abide by COVID-19 protocols as well. Fortunately, the cheer squad is able to do so relatively easily.

“We keep our masks on at all times and we are able to keep safe distance in the bleachers,” she said.

cheer team on bleachers
The cheer squad, entirely masked, cheers for the basketball team from the bleachers. Cheering in the new gymnasium has been a welcome change from the old gym. “It’s all around a major upgrade from cheering in the Pit,” junior Emma Ward said. (Photo by Sam Mostow)

To add to the chaos of the season, Ward now cheers in the new school, which generates optimism for the future.

“In the new gym, we will be cheering much closer to the fans once they are able to return, which will be so exciting. It will be much easier to get the fans involved with our cheers. It’s all around a major upgrade from cheering in the Pit.”

At the end of the night, no fans left their seats giddy in victory after Mason’s varsity win against a then-undefeated team. There were no celebrations, or no in-person acknowledgement of the significance of Mason’s victory. Instead, players, coaches, and cheerleaders alike have to put one foot in front of the other, abide by safety protocols, and hope for better times ahead.

“I just want our school to know how appreciative we are to be allowed to play and we look forward to getting all the students back to in-person learning as soon as it is safe to proceed,” Gilroy said.