After sitting eerily silent for nearly three months, the gymnasium at Mitchell High School is once again alive with the sounds of bouncing balls, sneakers scuffing and whistles blowing.
Following the approval of non-binding summer guidance rules from the South Dakota High School Activities Association, the Mitchell boys basketball team finally returned to work on Monday for sanctioned workouts following the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
Basketball was listed as a “moderate risk” in the SDHSAA’s three-tiered guidelines, but Mitchell is taking precautions by allowing no more than 10 individuals -- nine players and one coach or eight players and two coaches -- over 45-minute sessions four days per week, allowing coaches and players to reunite once again.
“It’s good to see the guys and be with the guys -- that’s probably the best,” MHS head coach Todd Neuendorf said. “Not having to deal with texting and stuff and just being around them. I get to listen to their stories and they get to listen to mine. It’s not like normal, but it’s better than nothing.”
Upon returning, players and coaches were introduced to new additions to their warm-up routines, as players and coaches are subject to COVID-19 screenings on arrival to the gym.
All participants have their temperatures taken, followed by hand sanitization prior to the beginning of practice. Kids are also assigned a specific basketball to be used for the duration of practice. Afterward, kids leave through a different door than they used on arrival, while basketballs are sprayed with a special disinfectant following each session.
Otherwise, the new rules have little imposition on the practice plans designed prior to the shutdown. The Kernels cannot partake in one-on-one drills or scrimmages, but Neuendorf and his staff initially intended to workout in smaller groups with an emphasis on shooting drills to improve on last season’s 31.3 percent shooting from 3-point range.
“We are doing a lot of shooting stuff, which we were planning on doing anyway,” Neuendorf said. “Not a lot changes, other than for kids, you like to have the competitive two-on-two or three-on-three games. That’s why kids come out for basketball. You always like to end with something like that, but we can’t. We’re ending with our shooting games against the clock.”
There is an advantage to the limitations provided, as it forces players to work diligently during the drills without the reprieve of a scrimmage setting that can mask certain deficiencies for players.
In April, Neuendorf sent players a shooting log to track progress for those capable of shooting in their driveways and they must return the reports each month to the coaching staff.
“Now when we bring guys in, put them on the (shooting) machines and having them do these shooting drills, you can tell who hasn’t had a ball in their hands very much,” Neuendorf said. “You can play two hours of five-on-five and you might get 20 shots up; they’re coming in here for 45 minutes and we’re getting 400 or 500 shots up. It’s pretty glaring.”
Already holding high expectations for player attendance, Neuendorf believes three months of being locked inside increases the desire for players to come in for the voluntary workouts, not just as a way to improve, but it could also test the commitment for players as more aspects of society continue to open up and return to normal.
“You can come to the high school where it’s 105 degrees with no air conditioner or you can go out to the lake,” Neuendorf said. “Summer is the great separator in sports because you find the kids who really want to be there. They’ll come to the gym when it’s better to be at the lake.”