Back In The Building: Crowds return for rivalry matchups, but COVID threat still lingers

The Columbus North and Columbus East girls basketball teams warm up before a game at Columbus North High School in Columbus, Ind., Thursday, Dec. 17, 2021.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic

No fans, no student sections, a near empty capacity where the coaches could hear their voices echo throughout the gym or in one case, not play at all.

COVID-19 impacted the annual Columbus North and Columbus East girls and boys basketball games a year ago.

This year, the games were played Thursday and Friday nights without a hitch.

Even though COVID-19 hasn’t gone away, it didn’t rear its ugly head to force a cancellation or postponement of the basketball games this year. The cheering from the fans, in particular the student sections of North and East, made Thursday and Friday feel close to normal again.

“We went from zero to this environment. It’s crazy. It’s nerve-wrecking. It gets to you,” East junior girls basketball player Saige Stahl said after leading the Olympians to a win at North on Thursday. “It’s the support that you feel and hearing them shout for you and cheer for you, it gives you butterflies. It’s amazing to have that feeling. The experience to be able to play in the this kind of environment, it’s amazing. Our student section really came out.”

Thursday marked the first time in 22 months that the East and North girls competed against each other. The teams did not meet last year because the Bull Dogs were in quarantine, and the game did not get rescheduled.

“It felt like it’s been so long because we didn’t play last year. Two years later, the kids are anxious to get over here and play. We didn’t get our home game last year,” East girls coach Danny Brown said. “You talk about our student section, our student section was awesome (Thursday). My hats off to our students, and they did a great job, and the atmosphere was like it used to be. I’m happy for the girls to get to play in an atmosphere like that and for the city and the fans to come out and see a game in a somewhat normal situation, but being careful at the same time.”

The boys game also didn’t played when it was normally scheduled last year due to both of the teams being in quarantine at the time. That game was eventually rescheduled in early January, however only immediate family of the players, coaches and cheerleaders were allowed.

With the fans back this year, it was an enthusiastic crowd that hasn’t been seen in two years.

“Our guys loved it. It was great for the community, and it was fun for our players to play in front of such an energetic crowd,” North boys coach Paul Ferguson said following his teams win at East on Friday.

For a majority of the season last year, the Bartholomew County School Corp. didn’t allow its teams to compete against schools if the opposing school’s county was designated as a “Red” county on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard. Over the past two weeks, Bartholomew County has been designated a “Red” county by the Indiana Department of Health.

If last year’s practice was continued this winter, there would be a strong chance that none the crosstown rival events, including the swimming on Tuesday and wrestling on Wednesday, wouldn’t have taken place.

COVID-19 has not only increased locally, it’s increased on a national level, as well. Over the past week, the NBA and NFL have been hit hard by COVID-19. Numerous NBA games across the league have been postponed. It’s also forced three NFL games to be delayed this weekend due to the number cases within certain teams.

Currently, no East nor North athletic events for the winter season been postponed or canceled due to COVID-19. Last year, the North boys twice had to quarantine for two weeks.

“We tell them to follow the safety precautions set up by BCSC and try to be careful and smart with what we’re doing, mask up and do the things we’re supposed to do,” Ferguson said. “Our guys try focus on being ready to play basketball and they let the coaches and administrators take with what the safety precautions are.”

Potential factors for the increase in cases include the weather turning colder, large crowds congregating indoors and the Thanksgiving holiday. Another potential surge could come over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Columbus Regional Health is at its most overwhelmed point of the pandemic so far, with officials struggling to handle a flood of patients amid the worst coronavirus wave in a year.

With the Delta variant of COVID-19 spreading rapidly along with the newly discovered variant Omicron that may eventually make an impact in the community, it seems that COVID-19 isn’t going away soon and continues to overwhelm the local health care system.

“We’ve got hand sanitizer. We make them go and wash their uniforms,” East boys coach Brent Chitty said. “Drinking lots of water, eating healthy, getting sleep, just trying to do everything we can.”

There may still be a cause for concern of a team not finishing the season due to a case within the team or contact tracing. It could leave a team forced to not play in the postseason or play shorthanded.

“We talk about it all the time, whether it is in school or after practice and in the locker room and using hand sanitizer and masks when necessary,” Brown said. “We keep our group together. We don’t want last year. Hopefully, we want to finish the season and finish the season strong because it would be a shame if we weren’t able to finish the season. I think we’re OK, and I know we are doing our part at East.”