As the high school sports season enters its final stage of play, there are signs that things are returning to normal on the field and the court.
The spring season begins in earnest this week for Manchester Essex Regional High School teams. The boys and girls tennis teams were slated to start the season against Ipswich on May 5, the baseball team will begin its season against Ipswich a day later and both boys and girls lacrosse teams begin the season against - who else? - Ipswich on May 7. Sailing season begins on Saturday against Sharon High School.
But while the start of spring sports will draw the attention of local sports fans this week, it’s the potential for postseason play at the end of the regular season that might be the most encouraging sign of all for local teams. The MIAA is planning on holding a state tournament for sports like lacrosse and tennis at the end of the season as long as COVID-19 numbers continue to improve and restrictions continue to be dialed back.
“We are very fortunate to have the MIAA on our side this spring,” explains boys lacrosse coach Jon Siderewicz. “They have allowed for a state tournament at the end of the regular season. There will not be conference playoffs this year, so no outright Cape Ann League championship. The main objective is to make the playoffs, and to play lacrosse deep into the month of June. This has its pros and cons, but bottom line there is a lot of lacrosse to be played.”
While short tournaments were played in previous seasons during this school year - there were a handful of division-only tournaments for some sports during the winter season, for example - this is the first time during this school year that tournament play at the state level is even being considered.
“We are very lucky in comparison to the other seasons that have happened this year in that we will be able to participate in the Team State Tournament,” says MERHS boys tennis coach Rob Bilsbury. “So, we need to use this season to continue to build toward that goal of qualifying for the tournament and also of playing our best tennis by tournament time.”
So, while there will be some changes to the rules for safety reasons, and masks will be worn on sidelines and on the fields and courts, the games and matches of spring will look and feel an awful lot like spring’s past. This is no mean feat - last year, the pandemic hit just before the start of the spring season, cancelling it outright. Sports like lacrosse and tennis were the only sports not to see any play since 2019. This year, MERHS teams began tryouts and practices after April vacation, and will start the season later than usual so as not to conflict with the end of the Fall II season, which just wrapped up a few weeks ago. While the season is condensed - a common occurrence during the pandemic - play will continue a little later than usual this spring.
“Everyone is excited to get back out on the field and get turf in their shoes - and there is a lot of that,” says girls lacrosse coach Nan Gorton. “That being said, the beginning is not without its undercurrents of what some players have lost. I am sad that my seniors from last year missed out and I am sad that so many student athletes have suffered mentally, physically and emotionally over the course of the last year. To me, this season represents more than simply a season of lacrosse, it represents the coming together to heal from a very difficult year. We all talk about learning discipline, work ethic, teamwork, etc., but what we need never forget is how powerful sports are for physical, mental and emotional well-being. I hope sports will never be canceled again.”
“It's been great to get back out and hit,” says Bilsbury. “It's a bit different at the start having skipped a year. The freshmen who were just getting their feet wet in the tennis program when last we played are now juniors with expectations to jump into key spots on the team. There is an overall feeling of, ‘Happy to be out playing,’ that is permeating the team after having had the rug pulled last season.”
With that in mind, the school, the Cape Ann League and the MIAA are attempting to keep things as safe as possible by mandating mask-wearing on the field and altering some rules. For example, there will be a switch to stand-up faceoffs in lacrosse, which changes how teams might implement FOGOs - short for “Face Off, Get Off,” players who win the faceoff and swap out for another player during the game.
“Without having strictly FOGOS on the team, this allows us to practice faceoffs more with other players,” says Siderewicz. “This is something that will be incorporated into practices more and more as we progress into the season.”
Travel to games isn’t quite as restrictive as in previous seasons as well, but some concessions still have to be made in this area as well.
“We travel by team - varsity and jayvee on separate buses - which I do not prefer,” explains Gorton. “I like to unify the program and really feel like we are one program with two teams. When we travel together, that is easier. But this year, we will not be able to do that. As far as on the field, the rules are the same, albeit in masks.”
With safety guidelines in place, and COVID-19 numbers improving, it makes it easier to concentrate on the local teams and how they are playing this season. The girls lacrosse team is looking to rely on captains to set the tone for a versatile squad that stresses personal accountability across the roster.
“I have a balanced mix of classes this year, which is great,” says Gorton. “I have four freshmen, five sophomores, four juniors and six seniors. It means we have a core set of leaders and a lot of energy to keep the practices, bus rides and games exciting.”
Meanwhile, the seniors will be looking to show the way for a fairly young boys lacrosse squad in 2021.
“Comprised mostly of sophomores and other underclassmen, the future is bright with this program,” explains Siderewicz. “We have a great group of seniors - two of which are captains - that really push the younger student athletes to compete at the highest level possible which is beneficial all around. The seniors have done a great job leading this team so far. “
The boys tennis team is anchored by Pieter Breuker at the first singles slot - the senior will play tennis for Bowdoin next year. The rest of the lineup is still in process after junior Roemer de Widt at number two.
“He has worked really hard on his game in this extended off-season time and has really developed his serve and his all-around game,” Bilsbury says of de Widt. “The rest of the lineup is still undecided at the moment, with seniors Nick McFarland and Griffin Kempskie vying for the third singles spot and several juniors and seniors challenging for the first and second doubles spots, including senior captains Jack Roberts, Sam Kenny, Emerson Kahle and juniors Remsen Demeo and Owen Bappe.”