Games On: With Time Running Short, Gov. Scott Green-Lights Winter Sports | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Games On: With Time Running Short, Gov. Scott Green-Lights Winter Sports

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Michel Ndayishimiye - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Michel Ndayishimiye

It was March 8, 2020, and the scoreboard showed the Rice Memorial High School boys basketball team trailing by one with under a minute to go. Michel Ndayishimiye had been there before — time winding down, ball in hand, all eyes on him — but never with so much on the line, never a state title in the balance. 

St. Johnsbury Academy defenders tracked the junior guard's movements, sagging off their matchups as if daring him to pass. He had other plans. He dribbled as he surveyed the court, patiently looking for an opening.

Finally he began his assault, veering right toward a teammate's screen. A defender jumped out to stop him, but he anticipated the move, crossing over at the last second before dashing into the lane, the defense collapsing around him, cutting off all options but one. 

Rising above two defenders, Ndayishimiye took a shot he had practiced for countless hours: a "floater," as it's known, for the way it just seems to hang in the air before it falls — this time, into the bottom of the net. A few possessions later, it was over, Ndayishimiye's last-minute bucket having sealed the deal.

It was a storybook ending to a phenomenal season during which Ndayishimiye eclipsed the 1,000-point mark and earned the Burlington Free Press' coveted Mr. Basketball title. But instead of building off that success in his senior year, he has spent the last two months sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic, wondering whether his high school career was over.

Last week brought him new hope: Gov. Phil Scott announced that high schools could resume interscholastic athletic competition for most sports starting Friday, February 12, after a prolonged pause. The decision — which applies to basketball, ice hockey, indoor soccer and volleyball, among other sports, but excludes wrestling and indoor track — ended weeks of uncertainty for thousands of student athletes and offered seniors such as Ndayishimiye a chance to finish their high school careers on their own terms. 

"We get to finally play," the 19-year-old Burlington athlete said on Sunday. "It's pretty exciting."

Scott's decision to green-light the winter season comes amid a nationwide debate over the wisdom of playing indoor sports before students and teachers can be vaccinated. Though fall sports proceeded without any major disruptions in Vermont, that was back when the virus was largely suppressed. Its resurgence — coupled with the increased risks that come with indoor activity — have made winter sports a far more precarious prospect.

At the same time, athletics are critical to the mental health of many students, and some experts fear that a prolonged shutdown will further exacerbate worrisome levels of anxiety, depression and even suicide that have been documented in teenagers during the pandemic.

"There's a ton of research out there about how our kids are doing, and it's not great," said Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals' Association, which oversees interscholastic sports. 

Ndayishimiye, who plays basketball year-round, said the game helps motivate him to show up and pay attention in school. Last week, before Scott's announcement, he told Seven Days that something had been missing lately: "I have nothing to look forward to, and it's been like that the whole year."

The shutdown also threatened his college prospects. Though the vast majority of Vermont student athletes don't go on to play at college, Ndayishimiye has already received interest from some schools. He had hoped his senior season would further prove that he has what it takes to play at the next level — and perhaps even convince some coaches to offer him a scholarship.

"One of my motivations is being able to go to college for free," Ndayishimiye said, "so that my parents don't have to worry about paying for it." 

"Not being able to showcase what you've done, or all the work you put into the off-season — it hurts," he said last week.

At a press conference last Friday, Scott acknowledged that his approach toward winter sports has been among the most cautious in the nation. In late December, he allowed schools to begin indoor practices but said athletes must be masked and keep a distance from other players. (For basketball players, that largely meant shooting and dribbling drills, which got "boring" after a while, Ndayishimiye said.) Scott then announced last month that teams could scrimmage among themselves but could not play other schools. Meantime, other states, including New Hampshire, allowed many sports to start in early January.

But while some schools in those states have since been forced to suspend certain sports due to outbreaks, Vermont has had only isolated cases among athletes, according to state officials. In the two or so weeks since teams began full-contact practices, less than a dozen teams reported any infections or close contacts, and none was forced to fully quarantine. The data was good enough to convince officials they could further open Scott's metaphorical spigot.

"Our current Vermont epidemiological data does reinforce these decisions," Health Commissioner Mark Levine said. "We are not finding indoors sports are fueling outbreaks since we moved to the most recent phase, nor, just as importantly, are they disrupting in-person learning."

Under the new rules, teams will be limited to two games in a seven-day period and must have at least three days between games. Spectators will not be allowed at indoor events, while players, coaches, officials, scorekeepers and media will be required to wear masks. The Vermont Principals' Association has now extended the winter season until March 27 and says it expects teams to compete in roughly eight games — a third of a traditional season — before playoffs begin.

State officials warn that they could suspend competition once again if they start to detect virus transmissions during games or if cases spike for unrelated reasons, such as Super Bowl Sunday gatherings. "The last thing we want to do is move backwards," Scott said. "But as I've shown, I'm willing to do whatever's necessary to keep people safe." Addressing parents, he added, "Don't ruin this for your kids."

Ndayishimiye spent the summer and fall working through an intense training regimen with his mentor, Sam Jackson, who leads his youth amateur basketball team and coaches at Winooski High School. Ndayishimiye spent many days running up and down Burlington's North Avenue, sprinting through sand on North Beach or drenched in sweat on the outdoor courts at Appletree Park in the New North End. One day in particular stands out in Jackson's mind: fat raindrops slapping the pavement beneath a darkened sky, a plastic bag wrapped around the ball, Ndayishimiye tearing up and down the court as if mid-game.

"The kid's a warrior. He's a dog," Jackson said. "He has made no excuses on making his game better. COVID would never be an excuse with him."

Indeed, though Ndayishimiye had started to accept in the days before Scott's announcement that his senior year might be a complete wash, he wasn't feeling sorry for himself. "If the season doesn't happen, all I can really do is move forward and continue to work even harder than I was before," he said last week.

Last Friday, he watched the governor's press conference during his lunch period and celebrated the news in a group text with his teammates. They are now set to begin their season on February 16 with what will be their first game in almost a year. Ndayishimiye would love to repeat last year's title run. But after all that has happened since then, he will be grateful no matter the outcome.

"Just being able to get a shot — even if it's just like 10 or five games or whatever it is — I'll be satisfied that we got a chance to play basketball this year," he said.