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The Prout boys basketball team practices on Monday

Coaching for twenty-plus years means practice plans and timelines are pretty well set in stone.

Thankfully for a basketball season amid the pandemic, those years have also fostered an ability to adapt for North Kingstown head coach Aaron Thomas, and he and his staff are putting it to good use as practice begins this week.

“It’s been very weird to try to set up practice,” Thomas said. “The first day, I changed it three times when our numbers kept changing.”

Continued adjustments will be necessary but worth it as the Rhode Island Interscholastic League sets the course for a winter season. Teams in boys and girls basketball, ice hockey, gymnastics, indoor track and swimming were permitted to begin practice on Monday. While some districts in the state opted to delay the start for another week, North Kingstown teams are off and running, with protocols in place, including a testing requirement. All athletes must have a negative test to start practice.

Test results contributed to the late adjustments on day one, but Thomas wasn’t complaining.

“Some kids didn’t have their results back quickly enough. Others had to get retested. We’re still waiting on four kids,” Thomas said. “But I like the idea of the testing - we’re starting with everybody having a negative test. I’m glad our district did it.”

Practices are the first step in a return to action. The fall sports season concluded in late November. The state’s pause pushed the start of winter sports back, and the league, in conjunction with districts, opted to push it further, into the new year. At this point, practices are approved. The league is still waiting on clearance for games, but will be ready to hit the gas pedal as soon as the light turns green. Schedules are already set, with games set to begin Jan. 15 for teams that started practice this week.

Prout’s winter season is also underway. On Monday night, which might have been a game night in any other year, the Crusaders were hosting their first practice. Doors to the gym were propped open for a little fresh air. Basketballs, the floor and the scorer’s table were sanitized before and after practice. Water breaks – which doubled as mask breaks – were socially distanced. The chairs that make up the benches were facing the wall. But even in light of all that, it was good to be back.

“First and foremost, it is so great to get back in the gym with these guys,” Prout coach Dean Felicetti said. “Monday was our first time back in the gym since February. It just feels good.”

Much like the fall season, game play will be largely unaffected by restrictions, but plenty will be different. Basketball programs like North Kingstown’s and Prout’s are keeping varsity and junior varsity separate for practice, unlike in normal years. There will be sanitization and social distancing efforts. Games will be structured in quarters instead of halves. Attendance will be based on indoor capacity limits. And for the players, the most significant change will be a mask requirement.

“When we got wind that there might be a season and we started to do what the league allowed this year in terms of organized workouts, we started training with masks on right away,” Thomas said. “It’s funny – my kids when they went to AAU tournaments were wearing masks. Kids would ask why and they all said, ‘You’re going to have to wear them.’ It’s definitely tough, but like I told the guys, you can’t make them an excuse. We can only control certain things, but let’s fight through it and let’s find a way to do it.”

The message was similar at Prout.

“They’ve been really good at it so far, especially the kids who play AAU or did soccer in the fall,” Felicetti said. “They’re used to it. And they get it – for them to play, they have to wear masks. It might not be ideal but it is what it is. We’re going to do whatever we’re told to do so we can play.”

Thomas is instituting shorter drills during practice to account for the masks. The quarter structure will be beneficial come game time. For Prout, practices are shorter – instead of a three-hour combined session for varsity and junior varsity, now varsity gets two hours and junior varsity has one.

“The biggest thing is we’ve completely separated JV and varsity practices, including coaches. Where we able to all work together and fill a gym, that’s gone now. It cuts into time. JV gets one hour and varsity gets two hours, instead of a full three hours. From a practice planning standpoint, it’s condensed.

If all goes according to plan, opening night will bring a marquee game for the Skippers, who are scheduled to visit Bishop Hendricken in a rematch of last year’s Division I championship game. The Hawks won the D-I title, and the cancellation of the state tournament kept the Skippers from getting a chance at revenge.

They are glad to be back, even with challenges.

“I still feel for those kids in the spring who lost their seasons last year,” Thomas said. “People are saying, ‘They’re only getting nine games.’ But, hey, it’s something. These kids have worked just as hard and they deserve a chance to play. I’m happy that they get a chance.”

Prout is set to open the season Jan. 21. They’ll continue to get ready for that day, even amid the uncertainty.

“All of us are in the same position,” Felicetti said. “The schedule is done. The work that the Prout administration and the Interscholastic League to get the season going has been unbelievable. They put in so much time.”

Whatever happens, the return has already been welcome. It was easy to see through just two days of practice.

“Practice is over, we’re starting to sanitize the gym and basically had to kick them out because they all wanted to hang around,” Felicetti said. “They want to be there. It’s good to see.”

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