Playing Through Covid: "My Motto Is Roll With The Punches."

Two Chicagoland schools search for normalcy and competition as basketball returns

The clock reads just a few minutes before 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night, Feb. 10.

Two referees and five boys basketball players from Stevenson High School (Lincolnshire, IL) are on the court at Woodland Middle School (Long Grove, IL) ready to start play. But there is a problem.

The other team, Lake Forest, only had four players. The missing Scouts player leaped onto a riser behind his team’s sidelines and reached into his gym bag.

He grabbed a mask. Now play could begin.

Only in the winter of 2021 could such a scene play out.

It had been almost exactly 11 months since I last attended a live sporting event that mattered.

On March 10, 2020, I sat courtside inside Robert Morris University gymnasium in Arlington Heights, IL for a Class 4A sectional semifinal game between Evanston and Glenbrook South. There were a few thousand people in the stands that night, packed shoulder-to-shoulder. To my right sat Craig Anderson, the Illinois High School Association Executive Director. We made friendly small talk. He appeared relaxed, looking forward to the Illinois state basketball tournament, to be played that weekend and the following weekend in Peoria.

Twenty-four hours later, Rudy Goebert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The sports world shut down. There would no state tournament and no more school-sponsored basketball in Illinois for the rest of 2020.

When I pull into the parking lot at Woodland Middle School in Long Grove, IL Wednesday night, it had been awhile since I kept score. I had to double-check a few things.

Notebook? Clipboard? Check

Non-leaky pens? *Hopeful* Check

How do I keep score? (Field Goal is ‘FG’, Free Throw Attempt is ‘FTA’…OK, it’s not brain surgery here)

I walk inside the school, check in at the front table (standard temperature check included) then step out into the gymnasium. Woodland is a nice middle school gym and for this abbreviated season, the home gym of the Stevenson Patriots.

Stevenson’s home court, on the school’s campus, is currently a vaccination site.

Can’t put up shots when the general public are getting their shots.

“Not playing in our home gym, there can’t be a better reason for us not to because of the Covid clinic at Stevenson,” Patriots senior guard Evan Ambrose said. “Stevenson being so prepared with that, it’s a good cause and it’s a good reason not to.”

But every day, Stevenson has to bus over to Woodland not just for games, but practices.

“It’s tough not to shoot on your home rims,” Ambrose added. “Every game feels like an away game.”

Evan’s father, Pat, the Stevenson head coach, told me in a phone conversation earlier Wednesday about Woodland, how “it’s a relatively small facility. The good part is the wood floor is nice. The stands are nice. The scoreboard is a bit small but it’s a nice size and a nice gym.”

There’s been a lot written the last few months about the loss of human interaction during Covid. When I recognize and say hello to a few of the coaches and support staff for Lake Forest and Stevenson, many whom I’ve known for 10 years or longer, it felt normal.

We make small talk about life the last 11 months and everyone seems to be doing OK. They are coaching and grateful to be around kids again.

“I wanted to do it. I really wanted to do it,” one of them said, while also admitting reluctance at first to returning to the sidelines during the season of Covid.

But it’s winter. And basketball is basketball. Players play and coaches coach.

After all the mechanics get worked out—when to do a light warm up, where to go for the pre-game team meeting, where put the chairs for time outs—Stevenson and Lake Forest play a North Suburban Conference basketball game.

That’s about as ordinary as it gets in the bone-chilling month of February.

When the game starts, the first thing I notice about the environment isn’t the masks (that’s wallpaper by now). It’s how quiet it is.

Everything, I mean everything is audible.

Lake Forest coach Phil LaScala casts a spastic sideline demeanor. His pleas to his players to cut down on turnovers (“be strong to the ball!”) and to play defense (“guard him…that’s your man!”) are easily heard. Ambrose’s polite yet forceful dialogue with the officials (there were two of them refereeing the game, other than the typical three) is amusing to hear (“what did you see? Did you see the same thing? OK, just checking”).

Public health guidelines limit fans to 50, and that limit can only come from the home team (there are noticeably less than 50 at Woodland Wednesday night). When the Scouts go on a second quarter run to take a 26-11 lead, we are programmed to expect cheering from their fans. But the only noise being generated comes from the Scouts bench.

“It’s only the other teams fans that get loud so we have to create a lot of the noise,” Scouts sophomore forward Asa Thomas said.

And then there’s the time outs. A lot of them.

A mandatory time out at the five-minute mark of each period is another Covid-specific rule. The referees get the basketballs cleaned (a woman at the scorer’s table scrubs them down with wet wipes) and the coaches have to think of something to say. For 90 seconds.

“It’s a long time out,” LaScala said.

“I’ll tell them I’m done talking and they wander out or get a drink,” Ambrose said.

There’s only so many different ways a coach can tell a player to rotate the basketball, get good looks and make sure they are guarding the right guy.

Wednesday night, Lake Forest did all of those things just a little better than Stevenson.

A 26-11 halftime lead by Lake Forest was cut to 30-27 late in the third period when Stevenson got hot from the perimeter. Jaden Evans a junior guard for the Patriots, drained three 3-point shots in the quarter.

But a 7-2 burst from the Scouts in the first few minutes of the fourth period pushed the lead out to 37-29 and the Patriots never got closer than four the rest of the way (Lake Forest won 48-42).

One differentiating stat—Lake Forest shot 16-of-21 from the free throw line while Stevenson made just 4-of-10.

The Scouts are talented, with possibly their deepest roster since the Evan Boudreaux era of 2011-15. Thomas, an athletic 6-foot-6, can shoot and has added a bounce game (11 points vs. Stevenson). Jack Malloy (6-3) is a lengthy wing and match up problem for opposing guards. Junior Leo Scheidler is a strong defender (he guarded all five positions in Stevenson game) and rebounder (I had him down for 10 rebounds). Cade Nowik, a 6-0 junior guard, adds toughness, on court I.Q. and can knock down foul shots late in the game (he was 6-of-6 vs Stevenson).

And Lake Forest played Wednesday without arguably its best player, senior forward Walt Mattingly, who missed the game with an injured shoulder.

Stevenson is young, probably as inexperienced as they’ve been in 10 years. Evan Ambrose is smart and plays like a coach’s son (and possesses one of the best step-back jump shots in the conference, which is saying something for someone who stands a shade under 5-10). Senior big Darius Clemons and senior guard Andrew Chieng are capable varsity players but this is a re-build season for Stevenson. With a good group of juniors and underclassman, they’ll contend in 2021-22 and beyond.

Most coaches are electing to play three or four games a week. That doesn’t leave much time for practice and each game takes on added importance.

“We didn’t have much of a pre-season and don’t have tremendous amount of time to practice,” Pat Ambrose said. “Our goal is to play games but not jam them everywhere.”

During the games, or just while playing the season, players and coaches are doing their best to avoid complaint. So when there’s a wall oddly behind the basket (there is a wall at Woodland, a cushioned one, a few feet behind the far basket), a mask that doesn’t fit quite right or no locker room to occupy (locker rooms are basically off limits this season), rather than grumble about it, they shrug their shoulders and try and find humor amidst the oddities of 2020-21.

After all, after months and months of stops and starts and out of school and out of sports and out of touch and out of sight, they can now play the game of basketball, together.

And that’s a gift to be cherished. By everyone.

“If practice gets moved, we are ready. Game gets moved, game gets cancelled, we are still ready. It’s a season of unknowns,” Evan Ambrose said. “My motto has been to roll with the punches.”