Barring an unexpected change to the new rules, the state's high school winter sports will be played in gymnasiums, rinks, pools and bowling alleys devoid of fans.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association announced it has reconfigured schedules for boys and girls basketball, bowling, fencing, girls volleyball, gymnastics, ice hockey, winter track and field, and wrestling last month. Besides shortened seasons — all sports will be limited to 15 events with no state championships — the NJSIAA also announced that the number of people permitted at those events will be severely restricted.
Gov. Phil Murphy issued Executive Order 196, which limits attendance at indoor practices and competitions to 10 persons, though the number can be expanded to include coaches, referees and other "necessary" officials.
"Practically speaking," the NJSIAA said in a statement, "this means spectators are prohibited."
Basketball games are going to be awfully boring. The only sounds heard will be the squeaking of sneakers on the gym floor and the squawking of coaches on the sideline.
No student cheering sections will be permitted, so no one will be holding up newspapers in the stands when opposing teams are introduced. Players and referees won't be hearing any (mostly) good-natured chants from the students at Lower Cape May Regional, Mainland Regional, Ocean City, Wildwood and other local high schools.
That rule is going to be especially painful in Wildwood. The island can be a lonely place in winter. The Boardwalk is desolate, the traffic lights on Atlantic and Pacific Avenues are blinking, and a good number of businesses are closed. Boys and girls basketball games at Wildwood High and Wildwood Catholic Academy provide a much-needed respite for locals. Former students and players and long-time supporters cram into the tiny gyms to watch the Warriors and Crusaders.
The bleachers at Wildwood's gym, now co-named after former coaches Dave Troiano and Bernie McCracken, are only about five rows high. Fans sit shoulder to shoulder, though they stand for most of the games. Championship banners cover the cement walls. There is also one listing all of Wildwood's 1,000-point scorers. Monica Johnson, who scored 3,173 points, will forever be at the top. Maroon-and-white banners featuring retired jerseys of former standouts Randy Beverly, Teresa (Polini) Cunniff, Johnson, Bill Osborn and Frank Vogel also hang from the rafters.
To experience a game at Wildwood Catholic is to take a trip back to the 1940s. The court itself is so small that it features a double-midcourt line that always befuddles opposing players. One of the baselines is about a foot from a brick wall, making rebounding a challenge. One side of the stands is painted solid blue and stretches from floor to ceiling. It is so steep that sitting on the top row can induce dizziness. There is also no space between the bleachers and the sideline. Players diving for loose balls frequently end up in the laps of first-row spectators.
Like at Wildwood, the walls are plastered with blue-and-white banners that date back decades. In one corner, a chart lists the Wildwood Catholic swimming team's records for each event.
Fans and supporters are also an integral part of other sports, such wrestling. Big matches frequently draw capacity crowds and gyms are filled with cheers and screams. Anyone who doesn't think so never attended the District 32 tournament when it was held at Absegami. If you wanted a seat for the 6 p.m. finals, you had to be at the door by 4.
The decision to ban fans is understandable, but there should be an exemption for parents/guardians, especially those of senior student-athletes.
For the majority of those seniors, this will be the last time they get to put on that uniform, whether it be a basketball jersey, wrestling singlet or swimming suit.
Their parents deserve the chance to see them swish that final jump shot.
(David Weinberg's columns can also be found on his Dave Weinberg Extra Points Blog and Facebook page, as well as on 973ESPN.com. His podcast, Dave Weinberg's Tequila and Touchdowns, can be heard on Anchor, Facebook and Twitter. You can also hear him 5:10 p.m. every Tuesday at Newstalk 1400-AM WOND and WONDRadio.com on Off the Press with Scott Cronick and at 5:35 p.m. Wednesdays for his Beat the DeGenerates appearance on Cronick's show. His Weinberg Wednesday segment airs 6:15 p.m. weekly on 97.3-FM ESPN.)