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Mid-Penn teams adjust to early season challenges of masks, conditioning

Dan Sostek
Chambersburg Public Opinion
Northern York's Nate McGill (32) goes up against Shippensburg's Anthony Smith (33) during the first half of a basketball game between Shippensburg and Northern York, Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, at Shippensburg High School. Shippensburg led at the half but Northern York won, 61-49.

Plenty of things are different when trying to play winter sports during a pandemic. There's no visiting fans. Players are spaced out on the bench. The playoff fields are smaller.

But Chambersburg basketball head coach Shawn Shreffler noticed one thing in particular in his team's opening game of the season against Central Dauphin.

MORE: Boys basketball preview: Shippensburg leads the pack in Franklin County

"In most games, guys aren't asking to come out of the game," Shreffler said. "And [tonight] there were certainly moments where guys were asking to come out. Because they were really winded."

This wasn't simply a case of lack of conditioning time — although that is part of the equation, with a three-week break due to the temporary holiday shutdown of high school sports statewide — but also a byproduct of the biggest adjustment to competition in 2021: wearing masks in play.

Chambersburg, a program known for using deep rotations and subbing fairly frequently to begin with, isn't an isolated situation. Struggles with conditioning have been the norm across the area since the season started earlier this month.

After an opening night loss to Northern York, in which both sides acknowledged fatigue hitting the teams by the end of the first half, Shippensburg head coach Ray Staver said he thinks the lack of a true ramp-up period made things more difficult, noting that conditioning is not where it would need to be even if masks weren't in the fold.

"Coming in Monday, and being told we're gonna play Friday, you've got a lot to work on," Staver said. "But you also have to work on conditioning. We tried to do a lot of shooting. But where's the happy medium?"

MORE: Girls basketball preview: Greencastle, Shippensburg once again threats

Shippensburg star Anthony Smith, who had just played an entire football season in the fall, said even he felt worn down from stints on his opening night, but made sure to emphasize that he doesn't feel it's a big hurdle moving forward.

"It's definitely [made it hard]," Smith said regarding the masks. "It's not really a problem, but it's an inhibitor for all of us, especially with that three week break. We tried our hardest to condition ourselves, and that's all you can do."

Coaches are searching for different ways to adjust. In basketball, that takes shape in shorter rotation stints, with more substitutions. 

In wrestling, Chambersburg, during their first matchup against Cumberland Valley, had wrestlers wear masks and do a cooldown jog after they finished their match, seemingly helping to further adjust to exercising with them on.

"This is essentially preseason," Chambersburg wrestling head coach Matt Mentzer said, who also noted how difficult it is to go into a season after the long break and limited practice ahead of real competition.

Some coaches are a bit nervous about the requirement moving forward.

"I believe it's dangerous," Shippensburg head wrestling coach Tony Yaniello said in an email. "Refs actually stopped a couple matches and gave the wrestlers a break to catch their breath. Something needs to be done before we have a disaster."

Despite that concern, no change appears on the horizon appears to be coming. The mask mandate is via the Mid-Penn Conference, and their decision was based on Pennsylvania Department of Health recommendations.

With quiet crowds and tired players, Staver had only one way to describe the start to the year.

"It's really strange coaching."