’Tis the season for winter sports …

With temperatures dropping and snow starting to swirl, high school sports head indoors for the winter season; that means holiday tip-off tournaments, wrestle-offs for starting positions and tons of excitement packed into small spaces in gyms throughout Central Pennsylvania.

I love all of the sports seasons: the thrill of the start of the school year with communities rallying around football fields; the excitement of springtime when the days get longer for baseball and softball; but winter sports have a special feel all their own.

Maybe it’s the long cold nights: going to and from events in the dark, and constantly re-arranging schedules around snowstorms. Or maybe it’s the close-quarter camaraderie with parents and friends catching up a couple of times a week while watching their kids compete.

The sights and sounds are unmistakable: even from the hallway, you can be swept up by the spirit of the basketball games, as sneakers squeak against polished floors, buzzers and whistles mark the start and end of the action; cheerleaders and crowds make their voices heard. Student-athletes who have played together for much of their lives run up and down the floor, executing plays with familiar precision. Boys or girls, the competition is fierce, the rivalries intense.

Walk into a Central PA wrestling meet, and you’ll witness decades of tradition. Fathers and grandfathers watch sons and grandsons competing on the same mats where they probably wrestled a generation before. Banners hang above mats celebrating past victories: districts, regionals and sometimes even state champions. Teams enter the gym together, run around the center circle to warm-up and stretch; but when the competition begins, the athletes face their competitors alone. Fans squirm in the stands trying to will their athletes to victory as each match reveals physical strength and mental toughness.

In schools with swim teams, fans walk into the humid pool, a stark contrast to the icy outside. Cheers for their team echo across the bleachers, almost unintelligible to the athletes focused on the lane of water ahead of them. This may be the most equal playing field of all: with little human intervention, the sport is ruled by the clock.

Winter sports serve up a grueling schedule, often with multiple events over the week and even weekends. The school lights staying on late into the evening, creating a center for entertainment and community pride.

For the athletes, the shared experiences go beyond afterschool practices and even the competition. It’s rides home on the school bus, listening to music and talking to teammates; grabbing a quick meal at McDonalds, and rallying for school the next day short on sleep; then preparing to do it all over again.

The days may seem long, but the season is short, especially for seniors enjoying their last winter sports campaign.

Tis the season to enjoy.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.