FORT PLAIN — After a two-year hiatus from varsity play, the Fort Plain Lady Hilltoppers returned to varsity competition last season.
Despite finishing 0-18, the work put in was considered a big steppingstone heading into the 2020-21 season.
However, the coronavirus pandemic put a damper on their plans as the high-risk sports season was called off as a health precaution.
Recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo allowed schools to begin play for high risk sports, with the county’s Public Health Director and schools’ permission.
When the Montgomery County Executive and Public Health Director gave the schools the go ahead, the five schools in the county — Amsterdam, Fonda-Fultonville, Canajoharie, Fort Plain and Oppenheim-Ephratah/St. Johnsville — scrambled to put together a schedule and hit the gyms for practice.
“The kids are doing great and are really excited about this year,” Fort Plain girls varsity basketball coach Phil Karker said. “They don’t seem to care that it is a short season. They are just happy to be in the gym and playing something. There is no pressure.”
The teams must follow protocols set by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association and the county, such as:
— Each parent/guardian must sign the district’s COVID-19 informed consent for athletic participation form.
— The County Department of Health approves the district’s plan containing the health and safety protocols in place to allow sports to safely occur.
— If, at any time, the high school hybrid learning model moves to remote-only learning, athletics, scrimmages, and practices will be suspended in their entirety and coaches shall not be required to engage in coaching responsibilities.
— No spectators or media will be allowed at any athletic contest — as stated by the Western Athletic Conference and Montgomery County; and,
— All practices and contests will occur in accordance with all guidelines issued by New York State, the County and NYSPHSAA/Section/League as such guidelines may be amended at any time.
“For the games they want us to wear the surgical masks,” Karker said. “If the ball goes out of bounds or is touched by somebody else, that ball has got to be taken out of play and another ball put in. All the balls have got to be kept clean. There are no locker rooms to use or going to the locker rooms at halftime to talk. Everything is going to be right there on the court. Almost like a summer league situation. We are responsible for our kids. They have to have a temperature check and fill out a form before every practice and game and even before they get on the bus.”
For Karker and the Lady Hilltoppers, they are looking at the short season as an opportunity to grow and take another step to returning to compete for a Western Athletic Conference title and postseason play.
“We are looking at this almost like a summer league,” Karker said. “Some of these kids have not touched a ball since last February. We don’t have kids who play AAU or go for private workouts. Some of the kids haven’t done anything since last March. They were excited just to hear they would have an opportunity to play and we are being very proactive with everything.”
With a possible nine players on the roster, the Lady Hilltoppers will field a varsity team only.
“We are very young with only two seniors, three juniors right now and two sophomore and a ninth grader,” Karker said. “We may add an eighth-grader if she passes her test. I literally was appointed Monday, we had a snow day on Tuesday and got in the gym for the first time for practice on Wednesday. Since I am not a teacher in the school, we didn’t have any open gyms so we are really going to be up against it.”
With perennial Class A and Foothills Council contender Amsterdam joining the smaller WAC schools in the league, Karker is looking at it as an opportunity for his team to see and play against a highly skilled team when they open play on Wednesday.
“We start out with Class A Amsterdam, so we are going to jump right in and learn how to swim,” he said. “We are going to try to stay positive and get what we can out of it. It will be a really good experience for our kids to see talented players and see what it takes to be a player at the next level. We are going to learn from it. You don’t want to go in thinking we are going to lose but we are not going to quit or give up.”
Karker sees playing an eight-game schedule could be a positive step for the Lady Hilltoppers and other teams in the league.
“It really could be beneficial,” he said. “Some of the kids don’t like the long season anyway; that is why they don’t play basketball. You start in November and don’t finish until March if you get into sectionals. Plus, you have the February break. Even with the short season we will have two games over the break.”
With most students and teachers out of school due to the COVID-19 mandates, Karker has taken advantage of some unique opportunities.
“We had tons of Zoom clinics from coaches around the world,” he said. “I got to pick up a lot of information and a lot of tips. I learned a lot during the quarantine and passed it along to the kids. They have really responded well to some of the new teaching methods and some of the new drills. I think it has helped me and them out.”
With the eight-game Montgomery County League schedule wrapping up on March 11 many of the Lady Hilltoppers also play soccer so the short basketball season will also serve as a tune-up as the Fall 2 season in Section 2 is scheduled to begin March 7, running until May 1.
The Spring season in Section 2 is slated to begin May 3 and run through June 25.
The exception for the Spring season will be baseball, which is set to begin April 28, due to the 10 required practice rule.