COVID’s Dark Shadow Still Looms As Holiday Tourneys Begin

Omicron Variant Putting Schools in Scramble to Keep Tourneys Going

SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ—On Monday, the 2021 Holiday Tournament portion of the New Jersey High School boys basketball season got underway with a plethora of games around the Garden State including those involving a number of schools from the Greater Middlesex Conference.  However, the dark shadow of COVID still looms as a threat with its latest variant, Omicron, forcing teams to shut down for a period of time.

For instance, as GMC Hoops settled in to its coverage of Old Bridge’s opening round contest versus Manalapan at the Matawan Huskies Classic, it learned via twitter that Colonia’s boys basketball team was going on a brief pause.  Colonia, ranked 3rd in the latest GMC Hoops Top Ten, was scheduled to take on the host school, Neptune in the opening round of the Neptune Holiday Jubilee at 3:15 PM on Monday afternoon.

Simultaneously, GMC Hoops also learned from South Plainfield head coach, John Greco that the Anthony J. Cotoia Holiday Tourney was also scrambling to keep its tourney together.  With Scotch Plains-Fanwood joining Perth Amboy Tech in withdrawing from the tournament, and J.P. Stevens and Montgomery pulling out of the Vaughn Stapleton Classic in Bridgewater, the two tourneys have been combined.

So, now, the No. 7 Tigers will take on No. 4 Edison in the opening round of the Cotoia Tourney at 12:00 PM followed by Bridgewater-Raritan facing off against Plainfield on Tuesday.  Also on Tuesday, Monroe’s scheduled game with Wardlaw-Hartridge was postponed, and the Falcons will now play the winner of Tuesday morning’s contest between Woodbridge and Immaculate on Wednesday.

Through the first week of play, there had been 18 games involving GMC teams postponed with 17 of those games being attributed to COVID.  Add to that an additional 15 postponements or cancellations occurring already this week for a total of 33 to date.  There have been 12 tournaments including freshmen and JV that have been cancelled due to the latest COVID surge.

In addition, with Colonia’s program going on pause on Monday, there are currently 11 boys basketball teams in the Greater Middlesex Conference that are not playing this holiday season.  One of those teams, East Brunswick Tech, was one of the first teams to shut down since its school had gone into virtual learning mode a few weeks ago, and is unable to play until January 3rd.

Sayreville and Woodbridge, which were the next two teams to go on shutdown prior to the start of the season, are returning to action.  The Bombers actually returned to play on December 23rd with a 88-40 loss to Colonia at the Bomb Shelter.  Meanwhile, Woodbridge which played a scrimmage against Scotch Plains-Fanwood on December 14th with only 6 players, return to the hardwood on Tuesday morning with a contest against Immaculata in the Monroe Holiday Tournament.

St. Joseph’s managed to get its opening week schedule completely in despite having at least a half dozen players out due to COVID.  More remarkably, the 2nd ranked Falcons were 2-1 with only a 64-57 loss to top ranked St. Thomas Aquinas at the 2021 Friends of South Amboy Charity Basketball Games showcase on December 18th.  Aquinas has also had to navigate around COVID to get games in.

Although the Trojans have not had any casualties due to COVID, they had to scramble to be able to play in a holiday tournament.  After the Joe Silver Holiday Tournament at Hillside was cancelled, St. Thomas Aquinas went into overdrive looking for a tournament to play in, and its search paid off with an appearance in the Boardwalk Basketball Classic in Wildwood where it defeated St. Joseph’s by the Sea from Staten Island (54-43).

Aquinas has been quite fortunate.  While there are a number of teams that had to shut down, went into shutdown, and remain on shutdown until the start of the New Year, the Trojans have played five games, the most of any GMC school to date this season.  South Amboy, like Sayreville and Woodbridge, is going to be getting its first taste of regular season action in 2021-22 when it takes on Middlesex in the opening round of the South Amboy Tournament at 12:30 PM on Tuesday.

Speaking of Middlesex, the Blue Jays had to scramble and luckily got in touch with South Amboy after Henry Hudson of the Shore Conference pulled out.  Middlesex usually competes in the Mike Shello Holiday Tournament in Dunellen, but that tournament was cancelled earlier this week.  Dunellen and Highland Park had postponed games on Wednesday and Thursday last week.

Timothy Christian and J.P. Stevens managed to get three games in before having to shut down their programs until the New Year begins next week.  The Tigers opened the season with a win over Highland Park, and then lost back to back games against Red Division foes, Stevens and Monroe.  TCS’ contest with 5th ranked Monroe came about after South Brunswick had to go on pause due to COVID.  Shortly after the Tigers and Falcons played on Monday, December 20th, TCS had to put things on hold.

The 10th ranked Hawks of JPS, which opened their season with a 44-40 victory over South Brunswick in North Edison, played Timothy Christian on Saturday, December 18th, and was 2-0 going into its December 21st contest at Old Bridge.  However, the Hawks had already lost several players, and needed to bring up kids from its JV roster in a 64-53 loss to the Knights.  Shortly afterward, JPS went on pause as well.

Piscataway, which had a bye on opening night, didn’t begin its season until Tuesday, the 21st when it opened its season with a 56-36 road win at neighborhood rival, New Brunswick.  By Thursday morning, the Chiefs were forced to postpone its GMC Red game with St. Joseph’s.  Then, P-Way has forced to abandon its appearance in the Greg Grant Holiday Tournament in Trenton.  Then, over the weekend, New Brunswick announced it was going on pause.

South Brunswick is scheduled to return to action in the Brunswick Classic with its first round game in the annual round robin versus arch rival, North Brunswick to take place on Tuesday afternoon at 2:30 PM at East Brunswick High School.  The Vikings came into the season ranked 4th in the GMC Hoops Pre-Season Top 10, but only had one returning starter, Yathin Vemula (17 points), play in the loss at Stevens.

The Omicron variant is the latest COVID strain to take hold in the United States.  The variant began to make news before Thanksgiving when it was responsible for causing an outbreak in South Africa.  The highly contagious strain first appeared in the United States on December 1st, and has rapidly become the dominant strain of the virus with 73 percent of all new cases in the United States attributed to it.

Many experts believe that Omicron is even more contagious than Delta, which was responsible for generating 1,000,000 cases in three days in the densely populated country of India back in the Spring.  New York City health officials saw the number of COVID cases double within days, which is something they had not seen before.  

This latest strain of COVID has come at a time where many people are traveling for the holidays.  Since the week of Thanksgiving, the number of people traveling, especially by plane, has been at its highest levels since the pandemic began back in February and March 2020.  In addition, airports and airlines had already been reporting issues because of a lack of workers.

The bottom line is that despite being able to start the season on time, and in front of fans due to many people getting vaccinated, the 2021-22 boys basketball season is still grappling with the dark shadow of COVID, which doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.  This season will be an interesting one that will change day to day and week to week as schools shakeout of this latest COVID surge.