Last Monday, Pat Cauley had an unexpected debut as a high school bowling coach. Hamburg’s coach, Dan Darnley, was unavailable due to COVID-19 contact tracing after working a Bills playoff game. So Cauley, the athletic director, had to fill in at the lanes. 

“I lost a lot of football games, a lot of basketball games,” Cauley said with a laugh. “But I’m undefeated in bowling; I’m 1-0 and then I retired.”

Cauley said people joke that he coaches every team at Hamburg. The job of a high school AD can be all-consuming. But no one could prepare an educator for the uncertain times of a pandemic, and things became even more hectic in recent days.

On the Friday before the match, Cauley was watching practice when his phone started blowing up. The state, in the face of a pending lawsuit, had given the go-ahead to the ‘high-risk” sports of basketball, ice hockey, football, wrestling, boys lacrosse, volleyball and competitive cheerleading.

Suffice it to say, he was shocked, as were a lot of people in his position around the state and county. 

“Nobody had an inkling that something was going down to give our kids an opportunity,” Cauley said. “If you’d asked me that Friday morning, I would have said there was a slim chance.”

 “Yeah, we were very surprised,” said Chris Mucica, district athletic director for the Williamsville schools. “Since September, we’ve been asking as a section and as a league ‘Is there guidance coming?’ There was no guidance in the fall and then no guidance in the winter. Then a week ago Friday at 4 o’clock, when everyone’s sitting home for the day, we get the guidance.”

Whatever the reason — certainly the lawsuit was an impetus — the AD’s busy world became a lot more turbulent. Suddenly, they had to cram three sports seasons into five months. In-between the winter and spring seasons, they’d be wedging in a shortened season of football and volleyball. 

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Mucica said Monday, on the official start of the revised winter season. “It’s been non-stop for a week now. We were proceeding on bowling and swimming and alpine skiing. Then the governor kind of dropped the bomb in a good way. 

“We had been prepping for basketball, ice hockey and wrestling and cheerleading. But once we got the guidance, we moved forward. We got the leadership team together in the district, the ADs in the buildings, worked with the nurses and IT people and had signups.”

Considering the shifting nature of the pandemic, schools had to be prepared. Jim Mauro, the Canisius High athletic director, said he put a lot of things in pencil. There were endless meetings and phone calls

“Scheduling has been ‘do it, stop, re-do it’,” Mauro said. “It’s been stops and starts, because you never have firm dates. We don’t have a football schedule yet. Thank God for Google calendars. It’s easy to edit and delete or edit and move them. But yeah, it’s been one thing after another.

“Today’s our first day back,” he said Monday. “It’s hit the ground running. Basketball and hockey both play games next week. Basketball opens next Tuesday. Hockey scrimmages Monday, and Wednesday’s the first game.”

You wonder when the ADs find time to sleep (“It’s not going to help my golf game,” Cauley quipped). In addition to schedules and dealing with coaches, there’s the exhaustive protocols that are necessary to run an athletic operation during a pandemic. 

Erie County stipulated that if any player or coach tests positive for COVID-19, the entire team must pause for 10 days. 

“It’s kind of crazy how it varies from state to state and within states from county to county,” Mauro said. “If we play St. Joe’s and one kid tests positive, they’re going to pause both teams for 10 days.”

Other conditions: Athletes must wear appropriate face coverings when not practicing or playing; locker room use is discouraged, but locker rooms must be cleaned and disinfected if used; no sharing of equipment, which should be properly santiiized; only essential personnel are allowed at practices and games.

The last one was a blow. Many states have more permissive policies on spectators. Originally, the county considered allowing each athlete to bring two spectators. But for the time being, they decided against fans at games. 

“In order to get things up and running in facilities around Western New York, Section 6 had to start without spectators,” Mucica said. “They said they would evaluate it in a couple of weeks.”

Dealing with parents can be one of the more challenging duties for an athletic director. They were properly diplomatic when characterizing the response from parents who found they couldn’t attend games. 

“They had some questions, I’ll put it politely,” Mucica said. “But first and foremost, they’re happy for their kids to have a sport and they’re happy to be moving forward.”

Cauley described the situation as “joy and chaos”. He’s gotten a few calls from parents wondering why there can’t be spectators in Erie County, like so many regions of the country.

“My response is, I understand someone being upset that they can’t watch their child,” Cauley said. “We’re going to do all we can to stream events. I’m just very pleased that our children will have a chance to do something, and Hamburg High will follow all the protocols and rules established.”

Mauro said he sympathizes with parents who hear of high school sports being played around the country without major issues. He said it’s especially tough for football players, who had no tape for college recruiters when the season was postponed last fall. 

The big challenge now, Mauro said, is getting the students to cooperate with the protocols and avoid infections that can derail their seasons.

“I just sent a letter out this afternoon to all the students and their families,” Mauro said. “Now, it’s on them. Studies show that running up and down the basketball court without a mask, the odds are very small of them getting Covid. The problem is kids being disciplined outside here.

“If they want to play, kids have to be darned disciplined. When they’re away, the masks and the whole bit has to be a part of things as it is in the building. My son is the kind who would go to someone’s house for the Super Bowl this Sunday. I tell him, if you want to play hockey, you need to go there and put your mask on. You’ve got to be real diligent about things.”

The kids are happy to be playing, that’s for sure. All the ADs said there were smiles on the athletes’ faces and a noticeable spring in their step on Monday, knowing that those “high-risk” sports were on again in New York.

The adults felt it, too.

“I can’t wait until 3 o’clock today, to be able to walk across the courtyard to North and watch the start of the boys’ basketball practice,” Mucica said. “Then I’ll go to East and watch some of the girls basketball, then I’ll head over to the hockey rink and watch some of the district girls and boys team. 

“I don’t have to say a word. I’ll just sit there for five minutes and just listen to the squeak of the sneakers or the sound of the skates. It’ll be great.

Cauley will hear a lot of squeaking sneakers. He’s back coaching basketball because the varsity assistant had to take over the middle school team.

“I’m here, anyway,” Cauley said Tuesday morning. “I had a blast yesterday. We had a lot of fun. We have some really good kids. I’m excited about it.

“It’s been awhile,” he said, “but you never really leave. You’ve been thinking it, watching it. You watch coaches and practices and games every single day, all year long. I’m just glad to be back, to be part of it again.”