The Guilford girls lacrosse team had a lot to look forward to in 2020 with a solid group of returning players and an SCC championship to defend.
The title defense never materialized, however, as students were sent home for distance learning in March and the CIAC subsequently canceled the spring athletic season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, at long last, the players have returned to the field.
Guilford will be among the 10 Connecticut girls lacrosse teams competing in the Dream League, a free statewide league created for high school players by the James Vick Foundation.
Branford, Madison, North Haven, Wallingford and Guilford will make up the North Conference, and West Haven, Amity, Stratford, Monroe and Shelton will make up the South Conference.
Games begin on July 6 with playoffs slated to start on Aug. 10. The North tournament will be played at Guilford High School, and the South tournament will be played at Stratford’s Penders Field, with the two conference champions meeting in the Dream League final.
For this year, the CIAC is allowing high school coaches to coach their players outside the spring season.
Thinking about real games and a postseason is great, but for the moment, simply being on the field again was a joy in itself when practices began this week.
“The seniors are so excited,” Guilford coach Wendy Epke said. “We had our first practice today and if you had asked me three months ago, I would’ve said there’s no way we’re going to be out there playing with this group of players. And then, today, we were out there, it’s blazing hot, and we’re preparing for a season.”
“When I learned about the James Vick League, I knew I wanted to play right away because I never got to play my last lacrosse season, and this would make up for it,” said Shelton’s Maeve Marks, who spent the final months of her senior year distance learning.
The Dream League program is free for student-athletes, and enrollment includes insurance, practice shirts, and game uniforms that are covered by the league. The James Vick Foundation provides general administrative support to all of the teams and players, while the coaches and parent volunteers provide on-site support.
As a condition of enrollment, all Dream League athletes, staff and volunteers have agreed to be tested for COVID-19, and will follow prevention protocol prior to practices and games.
The intent of the Dream League is to “give the athletes back what was taken from them with the canceled high school season.”
“It was paramount to make an effort to give these girls a season,” said Christian Vick of the foundation. “The cancellation of the high school season had an incredible impact on high school athletes in this country.
“The teams that will compete in the program are finally getting a chance to enjoy the thrill of competition, and we could not be more proud of all of them.”
Being back on the field presents some challenges, as players have been limited to at-home training and drills since March.
“We had a virtual season on Google Classroom,” Epke said of her Guilford players. “I had the kids posting workouts from each day, requiring different activities and drills, and having them send back videos of themselves doing the drills. So for the most part the kids have been working at home, but you can only work on your individual skills. You can’t simulate working with other people.”
Teams are not limited to one school. Stratford, for example, will be named the “Devil Dogs” with players from Stratford and Bunnell High Schools. Guilford, which will be the Seahawks, includes a majority of players from the town high school, with two student-athletes from other schools.
“It’s nice because these two girls have grown up with the kids playing youth lacrosse since kindergarten or first grade, and now they’re back with us,” Epke said. “It’s great because they’re back in the mix and it’s like they never left to go to another school.”
For the seniors, the Dream League is especially heartwarming. All teams will celebrate a senior night — a moment in time this year’s spring athletes have missed.
“It is important to me to get back on the field because with everything happening around us, it gives us a chance to think about something positive and to have hope,” Marks said.
Vick said the league has 35 prevention protocol volunteers and a medical oversight committee made up of RNs and doctors who will oversee the results of prevention protocol, monitor test results and make recommendations to the commissioner.
Mental health was the primary reason for creating the league, according to Vick.
“We did a league opening clinic last weekend and the happiness, the joy, even the tears, made it very clear this shutdown has changed the very fabric of these girls’ lives,” said Vick. “This league is much bigger than lacrosse.”