The voicemail, asking about how this fall sports season was going as it neared the finish, had idly wondered if Mark Berkowitz might be in the Weston athletic director’s office on Veterans Day.
He wasn’t, though he retrieved the call from home: He was completing a stint in quarantine for a possible COVID-19 exposure.
“Speaking of how the fall is going,” Berkowitz joked.
On the ever-growing list of how the pandemic and the response to it have disrupted daily life in Connecticut, how it changed the fall high school sports season ranks low.
But through postponements, reschedulings, cancellations and quarantines, athletic directors across the state scrambled to help make sure as much of the fall as possible could be salvaged.
“I’ve been saying all fall, and people in my school are sick of me saying it, we’re in a pandemic. This is the real deal,” Torrington athletic director Mike McKenna said. “First things first, we’ve got to be safe.”
The rewards have been great, Shelton athletic director John Niski said. Players got onto the fields and courts and into the pools to compete, some of them for championships, even if those championships are regional or divisional instead of state or league titles.
“As an administrator? It’s been chock full of challenges every single day,” Niski said. They’ve had to deal with the usual stuff: checking the weather, making sure officials are ready, fields, buses.
“On top of it, you’re making sure the kids are healthy,” he said, “that coaches and athletes are following the protocols we’ve put in place. By and large, they’ve been great about it, because they want to be playing.
“The challenges have been great,” Niski added, “but they have been surmountable. We do the best we can.”
Torrington, for instance, got put into distance learning on Sept. 21, the first day of full team practices for everybody else. It came back from distance learning on Oct. 1, the scheduled first day of games, with no practices for its teams.
“We practiced Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and played our first games either Monday or Tuesday,” McKenna said. Conditioning wasn’t a problem; their athletes had been conditioning since the summer. But they hadn’t been together as a team to practice things like set pieces in soccer.
“That put us behind the 8-ball, but our coaches never even flinched,” McKenna said. “They said, let’s start playing games. We don’t know how it might go. Let’s get the games in for the kids. We were lucky.”
Officially, fall contests can go until Nov. 21. Most if not all games will be done sooner. The winter season was at first supposed to follow right behind, but the CIAC pushed it off to review the latest recommendations from the state Department of Public Health; more information on winter sports is expected Tuesday.
Postponements and withdrawals have affected the postseason as they did the regular season. The NVL canceled the rest of its playoffs on Monday. Numerous teams opted out of the playoffs or dropped out once they began.
Norwalk athletic director Doug Marchetti, whose teams were affected a couple of times by the virus, was among those who wasn’t sure the fall season would get this far.
“As an athletic director, sometimes you’re thinking maybe a season or two ahead, or a week or two ahead. We had to go day by day,” Marchetti said. “You worry the phone’s going to ring … and somebody’s quarantined, and now you’ve got contact tracing.”
It helped, Marchetti said, to play sub-varsity games on the weekend in the FCIAC. It probably limited some younger students’ chances to play, but it eased demands for fields during the week and limited back-to-back games, limiting the mingling of teams and crowds as one group arrived before the other departed.
“Friday night or Saturday maybe, you’d say, hey, we got through another week,” Marchetti said. “Going through the FCIAC, I think every school was affected with some kind of COVID cases, whether they were quarantined, other teams were quarantined. The athletic directors were fabulous working with each other and adjusting on the fly.”
CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini said that over 30,000 athletes participated this fall, including those who took part in 7-on-7 football; 11-on-11 tackle football wasn’t played under CIAC sanction and was ultimately disallowed by the state this week, capping a months-long saga that saw two independent leagues created.
For the success of the sports that were played, he credited league commissioners, athletic directors and other administrators, and players, adding thanks to the game officials.
“A lot of our officials might be into the demographic where they might be a little more at risk,” Lungarini said, “but they took all the appropriate precautions.”
SCC commissioner Al Carbone estimated that the league played over 95 percent of its games.
“Very few were canceled,” Carbone said. “I think it’s great.”
Berkowitz doubted many people believed they’d make it to mid-November.
“You go out to the field at 4, 5, 6 (p.m.), whatever time, whether it’s a gym, pool, court,” Berkowitz said, “and you watch the athletes compete — the joy when something positive happens, the sorrow even when something not so positive happens — that’s why we do what we do.”
Some of those athletes were around for this week. Some had this week taken away from them.
For everyone behind the scenes it has been one long season.
“We had a virtual call,” Marchetti said, “and I looked at myself and said ‘you look like hell.’ It feels like five years. It’s been a long, long row to hoe.”