To say the game has changed would be an understatement.
Every year, athletes who don green-and-white uniforms for Manchester Essex Regional High School face familiar challenges: The challenge of facing this week’s opponents, the challenge of developing chemistry on the field with teammates, the challenge of improving oneself as a student-athlete. In addition to the usual challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic that has enveloped the nation since the spring introduces some new challenges local athletes haven’t faced before: How do you stay safe and healthy in the face of a viral pandemic? What are the guidelines in place for each sport, and how do you make sure they are being followed while still giving an intense, high-effort performance?
These are many of the challenges that coaches and players are trying to navigate at this time. With a preseason/try-out period that began on September 21, the fall season gets underway this week for MERHS sports teams.
All teams are required to wear masks and use hand sanitizer, but there seems to be a relatively crucial change for each team. For field hockey, the number of players on the field at one time will change from the standard 11-on-11 to 7-on-7 this fall, affecting how the roster is shaped.
“This has, in turn, caused us to have few kids on each team because we want to be sure that each student athlete is able to get in games and have fun,” explains field hockey coach Kara Crovo. “We also typically have players who need another year at the jayvee level, but we do like to have them participate in some varsity practices and games; but because we need to make cohorts of students for practices and take separate buses at different times for games, we are not sure this is possible.”
The soccer squads also face some differences when it comes to roster management and drills this fall.
“We like to keep all the players together at the same field during the pre-season so everyone gets to meet each other across the different grades and to create a ‘program’ atmosphere rather than separate teams, but we have been unable to do that this season,” says girls soccer coach Luke Cosgrove. “I think the common theme we have agreed on is that most of the rules and regulations are ‘not ideal,’ but are certainly willing to compromise in order to make sure everyone is safe, and everyone gets to play.”
“Obviously, there is a lot of tweaking with maintaining practice pods and wearing masks and converting drills to COVID friendly drills, but it has really been great to have the kids out there playing,” explains boys soccer coach Rob Bilsbury.
For the boys and girls cross country teams, the challenge has been finding a home venue for meets. The Hornets usually run at Cathedral Pines, but that option isn’t available to them this year due to the new guidelines.
“Our biggest challenge has been to find a home course capable of spacing out the start and finish lines in accordance with the MIAA guidelines for COVID,” explains cross country coach Steve Whittey. “Cathedral Pines has been our home course for several years, but the roads and trails are too narrow. Several suitable courses were considered but not available.”
Runners also have to be cognizant of clustering too close together when competing during meets, while also being aware of whether or not their mask is on when in close quarters.
“For the runners, the biggest challenge is running with a mask on,” says Whittey. “Our guidelines require runners to have a mask on at the start and until they can spread out the field, then they can remove it until they finish or bunch up again.”
Golf coach Hollis French explains that while his players don’t face quite as many restrictions as other fall athletes, the late start coupled with shorter days in the fall has created a very condensed schedule.
“Normally, our season would run from right after Labor Day until Columbus Day because we have daylight issues at that point,” explains French. “Now, it seems like we’re trying to get 10 weeks of a season into three weeks. We better not have any rain, because we don’t have a lot of flexibility to reschedule.”
While the challenges are myriad, it seems student athletes have been facing them with enthusiasm – they want to play and are willing to adapt to make that work.
“The start has been different for a number of reasons,” explains Cosgrove. “New COVID guidelines, later start date, less players on the field at once, new procedures and rules for games to name a few. The girls have been great about it as they want to play and are willing to follow all the rules laid out in order for them to get a chance at a fall soccer season.”
“They are being respectful and responsible, and thus far setting a great example of how sports can run safely,” Crovo says of her players. “In regards to the game, it has been great. Everyone is thrilled to be on the field again and the coaching staff is so ecstatic with the talent and enthusiasm of all the student-athletes.”