Westerly Bulldogs boys varsity basketball head coach Mike Gleason reviews a play with Bulldog teammates Byron Dunn (left), Jackson Ogle (center), and Jesse Samo (left) during the first half of the Westerly Bulldogs vs Cranston East Thunderbolts boys’ varsity basketball game played Thursday evening, February 4, 2021, at Westerly High School. | Jackie L. Turner, Special to The Sun.

Westerly High boys basketball coach Mike Gleason talks to his team during a February 2021 game. The RIIL is "encouraging" student-athletes to get vaccinated now for the winter sports seasons. | Sun file photo

WARWICK — Not to look too far forward — especially since games involving Rhode Island high school fall sports remain in the hopper but not for much longer — it seems like a good time to look ahead to the winter season.

Borrowing from John Steinbeck, will it prove to be the winter of our discontent as far as basketball, hockey, wrestling, gymnastics, and indoor track and field are concerned? Will the ground rules concerning mask mandates that were in place during the 2021 RIIL winter season be resurrected for a sequel that no one wants?

Not if the RIIL can help it.

Now that the delta variant is here and COVID-19 remains a pressing issue, it appears to be as good a time as any for student-athletes who have their sights set on swishing jumpers and firing pucks toward the net to think long and hard about taking their best shot. In other words, the league is strongly considering those teenagers involved in winter sports to consider getting the vaccine.

“We’re encouraging them,” RIIL Executive Director Mike Lunney said following Thursday’s Principals’ Committee on Athletics meeting.

Reverting to last year when a student-athlete tested positive, it was a forgone conclusion that student-athletes had to abide by the quarantine rules even though they weren’t suffering from the coronavirus. There were a number of instances during the fall and winter seasons in which teams lost out on competing in the playoffs and for state championships because they felt COVID’s wrath at the worst possible time.

“If you’re vaccinated and so long as you’re not symptomatic, you’re not going to have to sit. That’s a key thing for our student-athletes to understand,” Lunney explained. “Now, the majority of those kids aren’t going to miss playing time, which was really a problem and an unfortunate circumstance that we had to deal with all year long. If I was a close contact but not positive, I still had to quarantine. If I was a senior, that might have been the end of the season.

“Everyone has to make their own choices,” Lunney continued, “but now is the time to think about it, especially for our winter sports.”

As Lunney explained to the PCOA during Thursday’s meeting, the decision to get vaccinated now is about a five-week process that also factors in the 14-day waiting period before you’re completely in the clear.

“We’re encouraging it now so we’re not up against it when we go inside for the winter,” said Lunney.

To date, the league has gone the social media route in the quest to impress the importance of vaccinations. On Thursday, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) posted an article titled “Don’t Miss Your Shot – We’re All on the Same Team” that included a startling statistic. According to NFHS, more than one million high school performing arts and athletic events across the country were canceled last year due to COVID-19.

The league is fully prepared to go a step further in the quest to disseminate the message to the member schools. That rollout should be coming soon.

“We can’t predict [what the winter season] will look like, but what we do know for a fact is that the more people are vaccinated, the better off we’re all going to be,” Lunney said. “Just taking that approach is going to protect playing time, which is most important to kids.”

As for the fall season, Lunney confirmed that girls volleyball players will have to wear masks in accordance with the executive order that Governor Dan McKee signed last week.

“I don’t anticipate that anything outside is going to change,” Lunney said.

In other matters discussed during Thursday’s PCOA meeting:

• A rules revision was unanimously approved to field hockey and will take effect for the upcoming season. In accordance with NFHS rules, a full-face mask may be worn in the place of eye goggles. The full-face mask must be smooth, rounded, preferably transparent (or single colored) and fit flush with the face.

• A vote was taken among current PCOA members for the three vacancies on the board. At the next meeting in November, Cumberland High Principal Adolfo Costa will be one of new members on hand.

• The RIIL’s budget for the 2021-22 school year was approved and it’s good news for member schools. There are no fee increases. Dues and other costs will resemble what were in place during the 2019-20 school year.

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