HIBBING — Hibbing Community College men’s basketball coach Paul Ciochetto was looking forward to the 2020-21 season.
The Cardinal mentor went out and recruited a team that may have challenged Central Lakes for the MCAC Northern Division title.
Of course, Ciochetto did all of this knowing there might not be a season due to COVID-19, and all of that became official at the start of the 20-21 season when fall sports were called off, and that extended into the winter season as well.
Fortunately for Ciochetto, he braced himself for that fact, so that took some of the sting away from one more sporting victim of pandemic.
“I feel bad for the kids,” Ciochetto said. “They were working hard, and we were doing group messaging every day, showing me what they were doing to work out at home during the summer.
“It was something that was a motivating factor for our student/athletes.”
Hibbing did get its 2019-20 season in, losing to Rochester in the MCAC State Tournament.
Then came March and the Nashwauk-Keewatin and North Woods Section 7A championship game was cancelled.
That’s when Ciochetto began thinking about the cancellation of his season.
That didn’t stop him from doing his job.
“As we started to learn more and more about it, there was no defense for it, but we still had to prepare for a season,” Ciochetto said. “I recruited a good team coming in, thinking we might get pushed back to a January start.
“I told the players to workout, stay home and take classes online. We weren’t sure if we were going to get any gym action.”
At that point, it was going to be hard to bring all of his recruits to Hibbing.
“It was a tough situation to bring players in from all over the country,” Ciochetto said. “Some of them were in hotspots, as we were, too. I didn’t think it was going to work. We travel quite a bit, more than the high school league suggested to do.
“When you look at the coaches, most of them aren’t old-time employees at their colleges. What happens if we get sick? Most of us don’t have assistants. What happens if teams go on quarantine? Trying to fit in a season from January to March, it wasn’t safe to do.”
Speaking of players, Ciochetto had one of his better recruiting classes coming into camp. No player will lose this year of eligibility.
He had a 6-foot-8-inch transfer from Graceland University out of Iowa, and 6-6 player out of White Bear Lake at small forward. He also had some guards out of St. Louis and the Twin Cities.
“A lot of it is word-of-mouth,” Ciochetto said. “That’s what happens when you build a network. You learn about the good areas to hit for recruiting. We also had some Division I JUCO players, along with some Division II JUCO guys, who were redshirted, along with some good players coming in from high school.”
Without a season, Ciochetto isn’t sure what to expect next year. He may get some of these players back, but some might go on and play elsewhere.
“I hope they all come back,” Ciochetto said. “I understand that you may only get 50-percent of them to come back, but I have to talk to them. Other schools are having seasons, so they may cherry pick some of our guys.
“There’s a lot of supply out there. We want our guys to play and go to school, but it’s tough online. We understand that it’s not a normal time, so you work with them.”
The decision to not play came down to the safety of the players, coaches and school personnel at the games.
“You hear the stories about the kids who have heart conditions, so why are we playing?” Ciochetto said. “You want to play, but there’s a risk. Most of our students don’t have medical insurance, so there were a lot of factors that went into not playing.
“We were preparing to play, but in the meantime, we started upgrading some things at the school.”
One of those upgrades was to the locker room, which the basketball team shares with the baseball team.
“Bob (DeNucci) did a lot of the work, painting and putting in flooring,” Ciochetto said. “We wanted to differentiate ourselves from the other programs. We are also putting some new graphics on the wall, both upstairs and downstairs.”
The other upgrade was purchasing two Dr. Dish Shooting Machines. Both the men’s and women’s programs should benefit from the purchase.
“It’s touchscreen, on-demand trainers, which are pushed to the kids on their phones,” Ciochetto said. “Their results get pushed back to me. It’s a way to track our shooting practices.
“It holds the kids accountable. They can’t pretend that they did the work. It’s also a good recruiting tool for the programs. You have to put in the work.”
Hopefully, that work comes to fruition during the 2021-22 season.
If it does, everyone will owe a great deal of thanks to all of the professionals working on the vaccines that should be in supply by, hopefully, the middle of December.
“I’m a big-picture guy,” Ciochetto said. “There will be a season next year. We’ll have some vaccines next year. It’s not the athletes that are saving us. It’s the women and men who went to school that are saving us.
“Grades are important.”