Coronavirus in Vermont: On Day 1, H.S. athletes feel ‘lucky’ to play during pandemic

A once-familiar scene unfolded at Champlain Valley Union High School on Tuesday afternoon.

Cross-country runners filled the upper field to stretch and warm-up before hitting the trails. On a lower field, the girls soccer team broke into short-sided mini games.

The football squad found a haven inside the track oval. And field hockey players had the baseball outfield all to themselves for tryouts.

“We have 400-500 kids out here getting some exercise, seeing their friends and being socially involved,” CVU athletic director Dan Shepardson said. “It’s wonderful. This is what it should be like at every school.”

Pick a high school in Vermont, and you’ll likely see a comparable atmosphere to the one on display in Hinesburg. 

Scholastic sports made their official return with practices Tuesday, the same day classes reopened for in-person instruction for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic forced Vermont, and the nation, to hit the pause button.

“For their emotional health, this is certainly helpful,” Shepardson said.

While competition likely won’t return for a couple weeks  — and only if the state’s public health decision-makers move schools into the third phase of their “Strong and Healthy Start” plan — the opening day of practices was a long-awaited one for many athletes.

More:How COVID-19 will alter Vermont high school soccer, field hockey in 2020

“First and foremost, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to play, see my teammates,” said Lena Ashooh, a senior forward on the CVU field hockey team.  “This is my favorite time of year. I’m glad it’s able to happen.”

“After everyone being in quarantine for so long, it’s going to be so nice to have something to come back to every day, a team setting, where we can just let loose and have fun and be with our teammates,” said Hailey Chase, Ashooh’s front-line teammate.

Like Chase and Ashooh, Mount Mansfield boys soccer player Will Hauf missed out on his spring season.

“I think it’s the longest I’ve gone without playing a sport in a long time,” Hauf said.

Adjustment period for face masks

The Woodstock girls soccer team goes through drills during the first day of fall practice on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in Woodstock.

While the state mandate to wear facial coverings for most sports took effect with the start of practices Tuesday, coaches who held informal summer workouts began implementing mask use for players in some fashion the last couple weeks.

The purpose? Get acclimated to wearing masks for game play during a season where a primary responsibility is to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s such a small price to pay just to be out here,” MMU boys soccer coach Dustin Hess said. “I think most of the guys will feel that way. After what happened in the spring, I don’t think people are complaining too much.”

There is, however, an adjustment period. Finding the most comfortable, breathable mask is vital. Bringing more than one mask to practice or a game is a no-brainer.

“The difference with us is we’re asking them to run as fast as they can and trying to breathe with this thing on — by the end of practice it’s wet, it’s sweaty, it’s even more difficult,” Hartford football coach Matt Trombly said. “We’re trying to figure out how to manage that. It’s a learning process for everybody.”

More:What to know about masks and high school sports in Vermont this fall

Ashooh sewed her own masks. Tuesday, she had on a mask made of two pieces of colorful cotton print — a fashion statement to boot.

“It’s not as bad as you would think,” Ashooh said. “Personalities are coming out. Anything to let us get back onto the field.”

Chase said it’s been bothersome “but by the end of the season, we’ll barely even notice it.”

While field hockey players are no longer required to have protective eyewear, mouth guards are a must. Matched with a facial covering, communication on the field might be their biggest obstacle.

“It’s pushed us to be even more communicative because it’s forced us to be louder and use our voice more on the field,” Ashooh said.

For soccer players, a wet mask isn’t the only potential hindrance. 

“It affects your vision. You can’t look down at your feet anymore,” Hauf said. “You have to put your head down.”

Said Hauf’s teammate Charlie Rodjenski: “You just have to get used to them.”

Hartford football ready for challenge

The Hartford football team goes through a passing drill during the first day of fall practice on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in Hartford.

Football saw the biggest fundamental changes out of the fall sports in Vermont.

No tackle and no 11-on-11 due to COVID concerns. In place of traditional gridiron action, the state issued guidance for a 7-on-7, one-touch format. In reaction to that, the Vermont Principals’ Association put in place regional schedules but no postseason tournament.

More:Vermont high school football to go 7-on-7, volleyball games to be held outdoors this fall

More:Regional schedules announced for 7-on-7 touch season

“We’re fortunate enough to have some form of football and it’s better than the alternative of having nothing,” Trombly said.

Under 7-on-7 rules adopted by the VPA, the 2020 season will be a passing-only game with no linemen. Skill players and linemen will alternate quarters for fair playing time, and teams will play twice a week starting Sept. 25.

For run-first programs like Hartford, that means a major philosophical switch. 

“We want to run the ball. Yes, we throw the ball with some play-action stuff, throw it on third down in the right situation, but we’re looking to run the ball eight out of 10 times and make our living on the ground,” Trombly said. “With the 7-on-7 game it’s much different. And now we’re teaching linemen how to run patterns and cover guys in the secondary.”

Hartford football coach Matt Trombly moves a set of contact pads during the first day of fall practice on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in Hartford.

Hartford quarterback Cole Jasmin, whose role will expand greatly in the new format, said part of him still longs for the Hurricanes’ tried-and-true formula.

“It’s exciting looking at 50 or 60 passes a game versus how we usually run the ball a lot — but I’d rather be out there with my line, be out there with the seniors I’m usually playing with,” Jasmin said. “There’s definitely two sides to it.”

Trombly said they lost one player to Lebanon, New Hampshire, where tackle football is allowed, and two linemen who opted out for the year. But workouts this summer were double the average from most years.

“The initial reaction from some of them was obviously disappointed … it took some counseling and some convincing that we’re going to make the best of this, it’s going to be fun,” Trombly said. “It’s still Hartford, there’s traditions that we have to uphold here, and they’ve been a part of more than anybody.”

“The more we’ve done it the more fun they’ve had. It’s grown on everybody, I think.”

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Contact Alex Abrami at 660-1848 or aabrami@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @aabrami5.

Contact Austin Danforth at 651-4851 or edanforth@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @eadanforth.

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