What the return of high school sports looked like in Vermont

When a high school game in Vermont last counted, the nation stood on the precipice of a shutdown due to COVID-19. 

Six months later, the health crisis remains ever-present in daily life. Competition, though, is no longer sidelined.

High school sports made their official return Saturday. Restrictions and all — from fundamental changes to traditional ways to wearing facial coverings  — games went off, seemingly, without a hitch.

At least one field hockey player air-dribbled to jump-start an attack. Soccer players busted for possession. Football players, in the new-look 7-on-7 model, stretched the field, sans tackling. Volleyball players found a home in a new, outdoor setting. And cross-country runners hit the trails once more.

“It feels like we are back,” CVU field hockey coach Tucker Pierson said.

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CVU out-duels Rice

Admittedly, Pierson woke up Saturday morning with nerves, unsure what to expect. A playlist from her daughter — named “kick-ass mom” — and arriving to see her team raring to go helped settle down the CVU girls lacrosse and field hockey coach.

“I haven’t coached a game in almost a year. I was nervous,” Pierson said.

With temperatures climbing into the 70s for the mid-afternoon home contest with defending Division I champion Rice, Saturday’s opener truly felt like, well, a season opener for late August.

“It was gorgeous out,” Pierson said.

After Rice struck first on an Elysa McDonough goal, CVU rallied behind veteran Hailey Chase, who found the equalizer in the third frame and set up junior Peyton Jones, for the game-winner early in the fourth.

Champlain Valley players celebrate a goal against Rice during a high school field hockey game in Hinesburg on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020.

Jones, a varsity newcomer after two years on JV, swept the ball into the back of the cage to provide a memorable debut to start an unforgettable season.

“We all found our energy,” Jones said. “It turned out nicely.”

Afterward, Pierson handed out apples and chocolate to her players. Victory No. 1, naturally, deserved something tasty to savor.  

“That just felt good, just to play,” Pierson said. “Not win or lose, just to play. Of course, it feels even sweeter to win.”

Opportunity for new SeaWolves’ player

Without pads, tackling and blocking, Vermont high school football has taken on a new model for the COVID-19 season: A 7-on-7 passing-only, one-hand touch game.

It’s not football in its purest form, but that hasn’t changed everyone’s attitudes. For one Burlington/South Burlington player, it was also an opportunity to play the sport he’s always yearned to try.

“I’ve always wanted to play football, but my mom is scared of head injuries,” senior Parker Ballard said.

Burlington/South Burlington's Parker Ballard (85) leaps to make a grab against BFA-Fairfax/Lamoille during a 7-on-7 high school football game at Buck Hard Field on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020.

Playing with the linemen group — they alternate quarters with the skill players — Ballard was as graceful as he was quick, snatching a pair of well-placed throws from quarterback Ty Lawson down the home sideline in the SeaWolves’ second-half charge to pull away from BFA-Fairfax-Lamoille 25-20.

“It’s like getting a good swing in baseball. I don’t know how to describe it,” Ballard said.

Ballard wasn’t the only lineman to shine. On the Bullets, Kenny Salls hauled in a 70-yard, catch-and-run bomb from quarterback Will Mlcuch that briefly tied things up in the third quarter.

“The bigger guys seem to love this, playing wide receiver,” SeaWolves coach Joe McDonald said. “It’s a lineman’s dream, really.”

Linemen shine for Middlebury 

Middlebury's Colin Bradford makes a catch against Otter Valley during a 7-on-7 high school football game in Middlebury on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020.

Before Saturday, Sam Warren’s most recent touchdown had been in a Middlebury youth football league game.

“I used to play tight end in flag football,” the Middlebury junior lineman said. “I only scored a few touchdowns there because everyone in Middlebury is a run-aggressive team, there’s only a few passes.”

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But with his Tigers putting the ball in the air 50 times — in one night, not an entire season as would more often be the case — against Otter Valley, there were plenty of touches to go around as Middlebury triumphed 20-14 in its inaugural 7-on-7 varsity game.

Captains from Middlebury and Otter Valley meet for the coin toss at midfield during a 7-on-7 high school football game in Middlebury on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020.

“It’s been a while,” said Warren, who snagged a 12-yard TD in the first quarter. “It felt good.”

In its traditional offense, the triple-option attack, Middlebury’s linemen are often the unsung heroes, paving the way to paydirt with blocks in the trenches. Against the Otters, those same players got to taste the glory firsthand: Warren and Milo Gordon each snagged scoring passes from Ryan Danyow that proved crucial in the victory.

“Coming in this year I feel my line’s a difference — if we can get them in a little bit of space, hey, they can do some things,” Tigers coach Dennis Smith said.

“We’ve got athletes playing line but that’s what we have to do here to build a line,” he said. “But everyone of those kids is having a blast doing what they’re doing. A couple might prefer to be one on one, mucking it up, but all in all they’ve done an awesome job.”

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Contact Alex Abrami at aabrami@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @aabrami5. Contact Austin Danforth at edanforth@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @eadanforth.

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