It was a season unlike any other for so many reasons.
Due to pandemic restrictions, the Manchester Essex Regional High School football, cheering and indoor track teams had their seasons moved out of their standard fall and winter scheduling into a never-before-seen fourth season dubbed, “Fall II.” In the interest of safety due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it was determined it would be safer to move the winter track teams outdoors during the early spring, as well as moving football and cheering from the fall to the newly-created season.
The plus is that it gave MERHS student athletes the opportunity to participate in sports that may otherwise have been cancelled outright, but it provided new and unique challenges that previous teams probably never dreamed of.
For example, the ME cheering team practiced indoors, but COVID restrictions did not allow for student athletes to make loud noises indoors, thus greatly reducing the “cheering” portion of practice. When the team was on the sidelines of football games, they were masked for safety.
“I think it was hard for the girls to cheer with masks on and be heard,” explains cheer coach Elizabeth Coggeshall. “During practice, we had to be very quiet, but once they could use their full voices. It was inconvenient for the girls, but it was something they were able to work through.”
For the girls and boys track teams, this season included not only a change in venue from indoors to outdoors, but how mask-wearing requirements affected performances.
“I would say our biggest challenge was to get used to trying to run with masks on,” explains track MERHS track coach Nelson Desilvestre. “It was very difficult for them to be able to breathe – especially the distance runners – and [there] really wasn't anything we could do about that. I thought running outside was fun. We were generally lucky with the weather, and it gave a different perspective to the events.”
Another challenge for the Hornets was the lack of standard facilities available to them for the outdoor season.
“Normally, we would have the school to use the halls etc., but with the COVID restrictions we were almost completely limited to the outdoors,” says Desilvestre. “We are the only team in the league without a track, so we have to become creative when it comes to workouts, especially in poor weather conditions and with the field events because we don't have anywhere to practice them. There are days when trying to be creative and giving the kids what they need is the biggest challenge and obstacle to overcome. There are days when I have to come up with a ‘Plan D.’”
Access to facilities in the offseason was a challenge for the football team, another squad that had to overcome challenges not limited to who the opponent was week after week.
“The biggest challenge and disadvantage for us, I believe, was the lack of an offseason weightlifting/ speed program,” explains MERHS football coach Jeff Hutton. “Every team we played was in a higher division than us -- we are Div. 7, and played one Div. 4, played three Div. 5 teams and played two Div. 6 teams. So not being in ‘fighting’ shape was really a big Achilles heel for us this season.”
It was also a much more condensed season for both the football and cheering squads, with only six games total and no potential for a postseason.
“It was a shorter season, and there wasn’t a lot of the outside stuff we would normally do,” says Cheer Coach Coggeshall. “The pep rallies, the community service, being more a part of the community - we weren’t able to do that. It also felt very condensed. The girls were great, I think the kids know how to roll with things at this point. It was good to be out there and to see the kids out there.”
With those factors in place, the football team struggled this season, finishing 1-5 overall. In spite of this, there were a number of positives to take away from Fall II for the Hornets. Senior captain Will Levendusky was singled out by the coach for playing at an all-star level on defense this season, while junior wide receiver AJ Palazolla was the team’s top offensive player. There were also key games that stuck out for the coach.
“We didn't have many wins but Beating Triton on a last drive, 80-yard touchdown pass was very exciting,” says Hutton. “Playing a 5-1 Amesbury team to an 8-0 loss was probably our best all-around game as a team.
He adds: “The Amesbury game, it felt like we got back to the physical style of play that has been our hallmark over the last few seasons.”
There were plenty of positives to take away from the performances put in by both track teams a well. The boys finished 2-2-1 overall and 2-1-1 in the division, while the girls were 1-4 overall and 1-3 in their division.
“I would say the fact that the boys were extremely competitive and were one point away from creating a three-way tie for the conference championship,” says Desilvestre. “It was the first time we haven't lost to Amesbury since 2015 when we tied them 41-41. And then we went up against the Kinney division champion and gave them a good solid challenge. Cormac Edgerton in the two mile was a pleasant surprise when he ran a fantastic time of 10:35.
He adds: “The girls defeated Essex Tech, I think for the first time, and it was their first win in two years. The number of athletes on both teams was encouraging and the way they grew and developed as a team was wonderful. I hope we can retain most of them next year because we would be very good and very competitive if we do. We were so much better at the end than at the beginning.”
The Hornets boasted a number of top performers on both squads.
“We had a lot of standouts, and it is difficult to narrow it down, but here goes,” says Desilvestre. “For the boys we had Will Kenney, Eli Heanue, Cormac Edgerton, Connor Morgan and Finn O'Hara. On the girl's side I would mention Maddy Curran, Amy Vitopilova, Sienna Crocker, Mercedes O'Neil, Caroline MacKinnon and Caelie Patrick.”
The second meet of the season was a turning point for the Hornets, with both teams gaining confidence and momentum while recording their first wins of the season against Essex Tech. That confidence allowed athletes to branch out and try different events, which in the long run helps both programs as a whole.
“In 2023, the long jump and 4x200 relay will be added to the events, so we need some of the athletes to give it a shot and try,” explains Desilvestre. “That's one of the reasons we come up short at times. We don't have anyone competing in an event, so the other team scores unopposed. If we can fill out the roster spots, we always have a chance to do something and not just give points away. You never know what can happen. This year is a perfect example of that. We were able to score many points in the hurdles because we were able to develop a couple of athletes to become competitive and keep other teams honest. We may not have the facilities but we are imaginative to compensate and give the kids help and understanding of how the events work. The more diversified we are, the better we will be.”
Looking ahead to the next school year, all teams involved are hopeful for a return to their standard respective seasons, as well as challenges that don’t include overcoming wholesale changes due to a global pandemic.
For the cheer team, the coaches will be working in the short offseason (fall sports pick up again in August for the next school year) toward the goal of the school officially picking up cheering as a school sport at MERHS. After a long hiatus, the sport is currently run under the Parks and Rec Department. The potential is certainly there: Only juniors and seniors are allowed to participate in the sport, and 24 athletes were on the roster this year. That number could grow if all four grades are allowed to participate.
“Parks and Rec have been fantastic, they’ve been supportive and great to work with,” says Coggeshall. “Eventually, we’d like to get it into the school so the girls can compete and be more active in the league. We’ll work on that in the off season and see if the school has a future for it.”
The football team is looking forward to a traditional fall schedule later in 2021 but will lose 12 seniors from this squad to graduation. The Hornets look to fill the void left by the outgoing seniors with players from a junior varsity team that went 5-0-1 in 2021. Meanwhile, the indoor track team hopes to return to the gym next winter but will do so without the seven boys and five girls from their respective teams who graduate this spring.
“As I mentioned before, if we can get the entire team back and have a few more newcomers join, we should be very competitive again,” says Desilvestre, who also fittingly adds: “It is always difficult to assess the future because there are so many variables.”
A lesson that all the MERHS Fall II teams learned during a season like no other before it.