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Fall sports season offers lessons for unorthodox times

  • Lebanon linebacker Christopher Childs (left) gets a hug from teammate Cole Shambo after Childs ran back a fumble for a touchdown during the second quarter at Bow High School on Saturday, November 7, 2020. Lebanon went on to win, 30-6.

  • Brianna Withington, number 8, celebrates Mascoma’s 2-0 win over Hanover by clicking her heels in West Canaan, N.H., Friday, Oct. 9, 2030. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/21/2020 10:17:48 PM
Modified: 11/21/2020 10:17:32 PM

Chris Childs has had his Lebanon High football team on his mind a lot since its semifinal game was canceled on Nov. 13, ending a 6-1 season.

He is still bewildered by the unexpected finish — the Raiders’ abrupt, unfortunate ending is the tough reality of the bizarre 2020 fall high school sport season. They didn’t play their NHIAA Division II semifinal game against Plymouth because of a COVID-19 case at Bow, the team they defeated in the quarterfinals.

“The hard part, now that I’m a week in, is I just got an empty feeling in my stomach,” Childs said on Friday. “All year long you expect something to happen, all that stuff. And to make it as far as we did, and then to have a case — to have someone on another team get sick and it affects your team wasn’t something I was planning on.”

Lebanon wasn’t the only team that had their season impacted by the pandemic. Three teams exited the football tournament early because of COVID-19 cases within their school communities. Newport navigated its way through the storm, winning the D-IV crown.

“Certainly there is no playbook for any of this, but given the guidance from the state and schools, we’re trending at about 92% of our games in the playoffs being played,” NHIAA executive director Jeff Collins said this week in a phone interview. “Of course (we knew games were going to get called off). The time frame we’re dealing with the playoffs, a lot of factors (about the cancellations). To include school policies about travel, it was community spread that didn’t have anything to do with the team.”

Things went a little more smoothly in the postseason in Vermont, however, with two girls soccer games called off. All athletes, except cross country runners, were required to wear masks during competition.

Here are some lessons learned from the unprecedented season:

Expect the unexpected

Mascoma field hockey coach Jenn Hammond exeperienced this. The seventh-year coach found out from a PA announcement before overtime of the Royals’ semifinal game against Bishop Brady that Berlin had forfeited the championship game, making their semifinal the de facto championship.

“My biggest frustration was why weren’t the teams given the same information at the same time,” she said Tuesday night. “Why would you, the NHIAA, near the end of a semifinal game, suddenly call the ADs and say this is the championship game. Let the game play out, you know Berlin forfeited. Let whoever wins the semifinal game win, then you just play the game.”

Mascoma lost 2-1, ending the career of four seniors who had to grasp what had just happened.

“Well, everything was done on the phone and on the fly,” said Hammond, who has compiled a 47-16-1 record over the last four seasons. “So when Bishop Brady coach got the news, there was still six minutes left in the fourth quarter. I would’ve coached those final six minutes differently if I had known.”

Operate as a bubble

Teams operated as their own bubbles, practicing and playing together while taking steps to make sure their peers stayed safe.

Still, sometimes COVID-19 penetrated that bubble.

The night before the Hanover boys cross country team was set to run in the Meet of Champions meet coach Eric Picconi got a phone call he had luckily not received all season.

“One of our students was quarantined because he was near someone who was in proximity of an active case,” Picconi said. “Our guys took it in stride, and we brought up a freshman.”

The boys placed eighth in the meet, and the girls team won its first MOC since 2008.

Be flexible

In Vermont, volleyball was moved outside and full-contact football wasn’t played because of the high-contact risk the sport poses, switching to a seven-on-seven format.

Teams had to adjust on the fly. Windsor won the VIFL Hartford Area championship, while Hartford, which plays Division I in football, was forced to play bigger linemen that never thought they’d be asked to catch a football.

“When they found out it was seven-on-seven, nobody was hanging their head,” Yellowjackets coach Greg Balch said after his team’s 42-21 regional championship win at Brattleboro. “They just got to work. We had to figure out how to play it, we had to figure out how to coach it, and they did.”

Moving forward

With cases rising in both New Hampshire and Vermont, both associations have given themselves until Jan. 11, when competition is scheduled to start, to figure out what this winter will exactly look like.

Collins said he’s learned how key communication with the NHIAA’s 89 member schools.

The VPA is finalizing its winter sports guidelines with a few committees still meeting.

“This winter is going to be completely different because we’re going to move from outdoors to indoors,” VPA associate executive director Bob Johnson said. “We’re going to have six weeks before games because there are concerns. I share some of those concerns about whether or not we should be playing winter sports, especially with COVID numbers trending up.”

Pete Nakos can be reached at pnakos@vnews.com.

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