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High school basketball: Coaches, players grapple with the sound of silence

High school basketball: Coaches, players grapple with the sound of silence

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Eric Davis usually loses his voice after a game or two. But despite Courtland opening its boys basketball season with back-to-back games last week, the Cougars head coach isn’t the faintest bit hoarse.

“After the second game, I’m spent,” Davis said. “But I do have my voice now. I think that’s because of [lack of] gym noise. I don’t have to yell over the fans.”

Davis’ vocal chords are the beneficiary of a most unusual environment for Fredericksburg-area high school basketball this winter.

In late December, games in Spotsylvania County tipped off last month with no spectators in the stands. Stafford County, which delayed the start of its winter sports season until Jan. 11, plans to do the same when competition begins.

The result? A game-time soundtrack devoid of crowd noise and dominated by the sound of dribbling and the squeaking of sneakers.

“Honestly, it really just feels like we’re at the park or playing 5-on-5,” Chancellor senior Shane Batten said. “When there’s nobody in the gym, we’re just out here playing. I know that’s not a great way to describe it, but it’s a big difference.”

Davis views the silence as a mixed bag. On one hand, the decibel level that accompanied Courtland’s exhilarating run to last year’s Class 4 state semifinals is gone, and with it the ability to influence a game. But not all fans, he noted, are a positive influence.

“The negativity side, you don’t have people yelling nasty stuff to the kids or coaches,” Davis said. “But on the flip side, you’re missing that sixth man.”

Similarly, any effect on performance is difficult to judge since players react differently to the spotlight (or lack thereof).

“You have players who feed off the fans, but on the other side, you have the ones who are nervous because of the people in the bleachers,” Davis said. “It’s sort of a mix, so those kids who were nervous are going to perform at a higher level.”

This season, instead of feeding off the energy, teams are tasked with generating it. It starts at practice, where scrimmages and situational drills replicate gametime intensity more closely than in the past. From the opening in-bound (jump balls are banned this season) bench players are deputized as honorary cheerleaders.

“I think I hear them this year more, because they know they’re the true fans this year,” Davis said with a laugh. “The noise comes from us. You have to cheer on your teammates while they’re out there on the court.”

Actual cheerleaders also have taken on an enhanced role. Although current statewide COVID-19 restrictions allow for up to 25 fans at indoor sporting events, Spotsylvania County opted instead to accommodate cheer teams, the members of which are classified as non-participants. Exceptions will be made for events like Senior Night.

In any typical season, cheerleaders serve as an intermediary between the crowd and players, amplifying fan energy and funneling it toward the court. Without fans, however, the job description is more streamlined.

There’s no stunting, and masks are worn at all times. Each cheer has a specific purpose: to amp up, encourage or console the players.

“The boys actually appreciate us more, because we’re cheering only for them and not to the crowd,” said Victoria Owusu, the sophomore captain of Chancellor’s cheer team. “It’s a more intimate type of setting.”

Joey LoMonaco: 540/368-5045

jlomonaco@freelancestar.com

@joeylomonaco

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