At 7:30 a.m. on March 28, when Fairfield Warde girls lacrosse coach Ben Levy arrived a half-hour early to his team’s first practice in nearly two years, it floored him to see many of his players already out on the field, ready to get started.
A school counselor at the Warde, Levy saw first-hand the stress and apprehension a year’s worth of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions placed on his students and the importance for sports to relieve it. But he was still surprised with this display of unleashed enthusiasm.
“There were kids already on the field wanting to warm up, wanting to stretch, wanting to play because they hadn’t had that in so long,” Levy recalled this week. “It was cool to see the very first day.
“In a decade-and-a-half of coaching lacrosse and football, I’ve never seen a team that early for a first practice in my life. I felt that this year it was in everyone’s best interest to be out there playing. I think there is something special about being a part of a team. I think that gives kids an outlet that they may not else have.”
On Saturday, at long last, high school athletes across the state will hit the fields and courts and engage in 264 scheduled contests to start the first, full high school sports season since December 2019.
PRESEASON TOP 10 POLLS: BASEBALL | SOFTBALL | BOYS LACROSSE
Since Gov. Ned Lamont reopened the state to all athletic contests in March, the CIAC released full schedules and announced it would be conducting state tournaments and crowning state champions for the first time in 18 months.
For spring athletes, coaches and their families who saw their entire season wiped out in May as the state was in the throes of a lockdown, it’s no hyperbole that the promise of a relatively “normal” season is breathing fresh excitement and appreciation into their lives.
“It’s awesome,” said Ian Thoesen, the baseball coach at Newtown. “It was depressing last year for everybody, every sport, every coach, every kid not being able to have a season… It’s disappointing because these kids are working 12 months a year whether it’s in the weight room, the batting cage, all this stuff. You feel for the kids.
“But I’m glad to be out there and I’m glad that these kids can just go out there and enjoy it and be with each other.”
When the CIAC canceled the 2020 football season and truncated both the other fall and winter seasons, spring players were concerned the pandemic restrictions would continue into their season. Lamont’s reopening plan allowed for a full season with few restrictions.
“It was up in the air. We learned nothing’s ever a given. You can’t take any day for granted,” Fairfield Prep lacrosse senior Teddy Bednar said. “I’m pumped. I cannot wait. Coming out here with the boys, getting some fresh air… There’s nothing better.”
And the excitement has been building for weeks.
Cheshire softball coach Kristine Drust posted a daily countdown on Twitter alongside encouraging quotes from her players.
RALLY THE HERD!!!!
RISE AND SHINE RAM NATION!!
It’s day 1
#44 Emma Glover pic.twitter.com/88GPyamjSr
— Kristine Botto-Drust (@KBDrust) March 27, 2021
Amity baseball coach Sal Coppola said his players, during offseason workouts, kept reminding him and each other how much time was left before the season began. “The excitement level is through the roof,” Amity baseball senior Sebastian Holt said. “I know for the seniors, for sure.”
Golf was one sport anyone could play during the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Courses were full to capacity. Junior golfers were able to compete in statewide tournaments throughout the summer.
But even some of the state’s best juniors missed out on that team high school competition. The nine-hole matches are back — a chance to bond with teammates again.
“It’s been a long time since we have gone out and played with each other. Team golf is so much different than going out there and practicing or playing alone,” said Jackson Roman, a senior at Hamden Hall Country Day. “When your teammates are playing well, that always helps you. That’s the great thing about having a tight team out there.”
And it’s not just the players. Coaches, too, are thrilled to be back.
“It’s been really, really amazing,” said Amity softball coach Sara Hale, whose return to the field was delayed a week because she was in quarantine. “You forget how much you miss being out there.”
Brian Hayes is starting his first season as Pomperaug’s girls track coach. He said his athletes are anxious to get started, but “I don’t know if they are as excited as I am, though,” he said.
Hale said her team seems to enjoy the most mundane of practice rituals nowadays.
“Sometimes the repetition of softball can get — for a lack of a better word — boring,” Hale said. “When we are doing drills and stuff, they are really focused and they know that it’s a time to work, but they’re also finding the time for the smiles and the fun, the time for the goofing off.”
Though a majority of contests will be played outdoors, where studies cited by the National Federation of High School Athletic Association found the virus is less likely to spread as opposed to indoors, familiar mitigation strategies like masks and social distancing on sidelines and in dugouts are mandatory during games.
Unlike the winter season, athletes are not being required to wear masks while competing unless they are stationed with others at one spot for prolonged periods — baseball and softball catchers at home plate, for example.
Boys volleyball players must still wear masks while competing indoors. Officials and coaches are all being required to wear masks throughout.
“They’ve been dealing with all these rules,” Thoesen said. “They have to wear shields in front of their desks, so I think they’re used to the rules. I think it’s just taking the rules that they’ve done inside and bringing it outside. But I think it’s definitely more of the excitement of going out there and playing baseball and hoping everything just stays how it is.”
Spectators are being allowed to attend games statewide. But school districts are requiring attendees to wear masks and remain socially distant. Each school district also has its own rules and restrictions on how and where to watch games.
Spectators are advised to consult with school officials before attending contests. Some leagues have released specific guidelines for each school on their websites.
Schools are remaining vigilant in the face of potential relaxed attitudes from fans. “After hosting 3 consecutive days of preseason scrimmages, let me repeat….MASKS ARE REQUIRED. Thank you,” Ledyard assistant principal Jim Buonocore Tweeted Thursday.
— Jim Buonocore (@ledyardsports) April 9, 2021
Despite the enthusiasm, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown it is far from over. Connecticut saw a recent spike in cases toward the end of March and, as schools confront exposure and quarantine issues, spring teams have not been immune to disruption.
Greenwich’s boys lacrosse team, for one, entered into a two-week quarantine due to an outbreak at the school. Hamden boys lacrosse postponed three games, as well. Issues at other schools abound and officials expect to see a similar rash of postponements and cancelations throughout the year.
Ludlowe baseball coach Mike Francese said he had several players forced to quarantine as they awaited contact tracing. Continuing to wade through the pandemic’s demands remains a challenge, he said.
“The fact that we can lose kids to quarantine just like that if they’re traced through the contact tracing in school,” Francese said. “So there’s a lot of things in the past that we never had to worry about, like telling kids to have their masks on to having them check in every day and do a COVID screening every day. Those are things as a coach I would have never had expected.
“Other than that, once we’re playing baseball it feels like we never left and that’s been the most fun part about it.”
But coaches and players say these are small, if inconvenient, prices to pay if it means they’ll get to compete and socialize with their peers again — like old times.
“Just going to the ballpark every day, just showing up and being around their friends,” Thoesen said. “It’s a different vibe. They’ve always been excited to play, but it’s a little bit different this year. I don’t want to say they took it for granted, but life has changed a lot in the past year and a half, and I think they’re just more grateful for things.”
Staff writers Maggie Vanoni, Pete Paguaga, Joe Morelli and Dan Nowak contributed to this story