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A sign of the times: Valpo's Ayangade, Bukata mask up while playing basketball

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

VALPARAISO -- Wearing masks, under normal circumstances, can be bothersome and intrusive. Now try playing a basketball game with one on your face. "I coach and I have a hard time breathing," Valparaiso girls basketball coach Candy Wilson said. Vikings Bolanie Ayangade and Kristin Bukata are setting a higher bar for personal safety during this COVID-19 season, two of the few who are keeping their nose and mouth covered while they're on the court.

"For two girls to work that hard, to continue playing that long, is a sacrifice on top of a sacrifice," Wilson said. I always tease Bukata, she's got her hair down on top of it and glasses. They're both such great kids. I'm so excited to get them to play." The status of both was a question coming into the season. The players' respective parents, Oluseyi and Creshinda Ayangade, both dentists, and Pablo Bukata, a pediatrician, both had reservations about their daughters participating in basketball during a viral pandemic.

"I had to beg until tryout day," Bolanie said. "It was definitely a struggle. After I promised I would wear my mask and socially distance as much as I could, they said it was OK."

"There was still a little begging and pleading; please, I'll do this," Kristin said. "I really wanted to play."

In a season of unique visuals, whether it's the largely empty gymnasiums dotted by sparse crowds, player chairs six feet apart, or plexiglass at the scorer's table, the image of Ayangade and Bukata wearing masks on the court may stand out the most.

Not that either ever attended to be poster kids for masks.

"I've never seen anything like it and I never want to have this again," said Wilson, who is in her 23rd season as a coach. "The masks have added another dimension. It does affect you, especially toward the beginning. We weren't able to sub as much, and they were just dying. We would have three strong quarters and one like we were crawling. You've got to have somebody with a lot of stamina to do that. Bo is up on the top (of the 1-3-1 zone) and she causes a lot of havoc. She's obnoxious up there."

Valparaiso High School's Bolanie Ayangade, left, and Kristin Bukata have to wear masks in order to play basketball this season due to their families' COVID concerns and both have acclimated well to the less than ideal scenario.

With a thick head of hair and glasses, the only part of Bukata's face that is noticeable when she's wearing a mask is a small portion of her forehead.

"We looked around for masks that would protect me and I'd be comfortable in," Bukata said. "The first couple practices for sure were not the best. I really tried to almost conserve my energy, take deep breaths, try to get all my oxygen levels up to the point where I feel comfortable, that I can play sort of normally. There are still going to be some challenges, obviously wondering if I didn't have this, would I be able to push myself more? I just have to push through and tell myself, I can do this."

Ayangade initially wore a simple medical mask -- "They were terrible. I couldn't breathe at all," she said -- then went with the three-layer covering that Bukata was using.

"It's more filtered than the other ones," she said. "It was hard at first. I needed to sub out every five seconds. I started wearing them in the summer, so I've had until now to get used to it. It's still pretty hard, but I feel like if I weren't to play with it, it would definitely feel weird."

While the circumstances are hardly ideal, both players have acclimated to wearing the masks. Both have protocols to follow with their families.

Bukata's clothes are quarantined to make sure no one else in the house is touching them.

"Before every practice, they say, stay away from people," she said.

Ayangade is required to do weekly COVID tests.

"My mom's giving me a little leeway; OK, the season's halfway over, she needs to play, she can't just quit," she said. "My dad, on the other hand, is the one who's had a problem with it from day one. The cases are getting higher, all the lockdowns, he's still pushing me, OK, maybe this isn't a good idea. I'm committed to the team. I'm a captain, it wouldn't feel fair I just have to be as safe as I can. It's just like an every day thing. I have to convince him I'm OK. You've got to do what you've got to do."

Work conflicts preclude Ayangade's dad from coming to many games, though her mom attends all of them, as do both Bukatas.

"My parents been great about it. They're really into it," Kristin said. "They're sitting way away from people. My teammates are making jokes, OK, where are the Bukata parents going to sit? Are they in this section or this section?"

Should there be an actual up side to all of it, Wilson thinks she knows what it is.

"I told them, at the end of the season, if it breaks, which I doubt it will this year, they're going to have like UFC wrestling lungs," she said. "It'll be like they were training in the Alps."

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