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Mask Up: High school basketball practice starts, season in January

Mark Dreibelbis, the Associate Commissioner of the NCHSAA and the Supervisor of Officials, was in a Zoom call last week with leaders from the Triad Basketball Officials Association. (The Triad covers the Central Piedmont Conference and surrounding counties.)

High school basketball practice began Dec. 7 and the season is set to start the first week of January. Dreibelbis said the NCHSAA is doing everything possible to safeguard student-athletes, coaches and a limited number of fans during the coronavirus pandemic. There are many protocols to follow to keep seasons alive and avoid another worst-case-scenario like March 2020, when spring sports were shuttered, which led to reconfigured seasons for the 2020-21 calender.

“There are times in our office where it’s been frustrating from the standpoint of concerns,” Dreibelbis said. “The one thing that I’ve heard in consistency from our coaches, our players and our officials is: ‘We want the opportunity to participate.’ And I think we need to embrace that. Now obviously in North Carolina, we have faced some different challenges than our neighboring states like Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina. I’m not going to argue right, wrong or indifferent, but I am going to tell you that we are bound by the guidelines of the office of the governor of North Carolina, the Department of Health and Human Services and CDC. And that’s where we get our guidance, and that’s where we go.

“I will tell you that last week, when our board of directors were in, there was a motion on the table to not start basketball. I will applaud our board for completely vetting that and then deciding that yes, we’re going to move forward. Yes, we’re going to put these regulations and criteria in place.

“The thing I’ve been most proud of with the North Carolina High School Athletic Association this year – it’s been the most trying year of my 16 (years) – everything that we’ve done is to try to optimize participation of every student-athlete in every sport across this state. Has it all been well received? Obviously, no. We’ve had so many changes in the calender and to our sport programs. But I’m going to tell you something, it’s been the hardest year for us and because of that I’m probably the most proud of our organization.”

Then Dreibelbis addressed the elephant in the room – playing basketball while wearing a mask.

“I’m married to an athletic administrator, and she’s a top-flight athletics director,” he said. “She has told her coaches: ‘You don’t have to wear a mask; you get to wear a mask. You get to lead. You get to show what’s right. You get to show that sometimes making a sacrifice is worth the end-all goal.’ I’ve heard her say that enough in these Zoom meetings to coaches and it resonated with me. And I’ve embraced that. I respect any individual that says they have COVID-19 concerns and they’re hesitant to be involved. I’ll respect any official that says: ‘I’m not wearing the mask.’ I don’t agree with that. I wear a mask everywhere I go. I’ve gotten used to it. If I was still on the floor officiating, the will and want to officiate would override my disdain for wearing the mask. I’d probably belly-ache about it, but I promise you I’d do it. Because being on the floor and being able to participate and being able to be a part of interscholastic athletics would be my guiding want and principal. Now, if that’s not as strong in some people, again I will respect that. There’s challenges and it’s trying, but the end all is the biggest carrot and the biggest goal we have. And that’s what’s guiding me right now. I want us to do everything we can to get over this pandemic, and until we all buy into being compliant – until we all buy into the fact that this is real – I don’t think the (infected) numbers are going to reflect a downward trend. I want that downward trend. I want this to be over with. I want us to get back to what we all call normal.”

Dreibelbis doesn’t want his officials to be punitive if there’s an isolated issue with a player’s mask. But if the player is a repeat offender, he could receive a technical foul.

“We want (the officials’) efforts, first and foremost, to ensure compliance,” he said. “But in the end, our coaches are our ultimate role models. And if the coach isn’t explaining to the player that they have to wear the mask at full compliance, covering the nose and the mouth, and they continually don’t listen to us, that’s a lack of respect, that’s an unsporting act, and the NFHS rule book gives us rule coverage to handle unsporting acts.”