COVID-19 has affected nearly every facet of the K-12 educational experience, and school sports programs are no exception. Despite the challenges, regional athletic departments have worked to make the best of a difficult reality and learned valuable lessons along the way. Here’s a look at what the experience has been like for several Chesapeake-area schools and why they’re optimistic about upcoming seasons.
Adjustments to the Game Plan
Keith Powell, Activities and Athletic Director at Patuxent High School, says the 2021 spring season kept the athletes and coaching staff on their toes as precautions and rules shifted almost constantly.
There were “so many changes, and as soon as we got comfortable with certain guidelines, new ones were given to us,” he says.
Key School’s Athletic Director Brian Boyd says the Obezags were able to complete most of the spring season, but with numerous precautions.
“We certainly had to be mindful of COVID throughout the season, with more frequent cleaning, no shared water, and masks any time players or personnel were not actively playing,” says Boyd. “Perhaps the biggest challenge related to COVID was keeping everyone’s mental health up as much as possible.”
The Gunston School was able to have some level of participation in all three sports seasons, but Athletic Director Josh Breto says it wasn’t without adherence to the necessary safety precautions.
A Team Effort
Powell says that despite the uncertainties and changing guidance, “all of our teams made it to the end, and I’m very proud of that. This accomplishment is due directly to the focus of our coaches and our athletes.”
At Gunston, it was “communication, adaptability, and teamwork from our wonderful and dedicated coaches, student-athletes, and families were key in allowing for a safe and successful return to athletics in all three seasons this year,” says Breto. “As a result, being able to provide our graduating seniors and their families a spring season that felt relatively normal was hugely important to the school and we are all grateful for that.”
Mindful of the need to strictly limit crowds at sporting events, the Key School athletic department established a new habit that it hopes to continue.
“Obviously, we wanted families and friends to be able to watch the games, so we made a point of videotaping every game (including every individual tennis match) and shared these videos with our families and our opponents,” Boyd says. “This is something that worked so well that we will likely continue the practice moving forward.”
At South River High School, Athletic Director David Klingel says “the most challenging aspect was squeezing two seasons into a time frame where one is traditionally played,” adding that several sports had to be shut down to the frustration of athletes, coaches, and parents.
Despite the challenges fielded by the South River sports program, the coaching staff pulled together to make the best out of a unique situation.
“The coaches were wonderful throughout the process,” says Klingel. “They followed the protocols to the best of their ability and made the seasons enjoyable for the athletes.”
Moving the Ball Forward
“We are very optimistic that this fall we will be back to normal,” says Powell, noting that he’s sure athletes—especially seniors—are ready for a sense of normalcy.
Boyd says he’s also “cautiously optimistic” that Key will see a full season of games come fall.
“A good deal will depend on how many student-athletes are vaccinated and the local metrics for COVID,” he says, adding that he suspects certain safety measures will endure.
“I can imagine that we might continue to socially distance and separate restrooms by team and limit the sharing of equipment in order to minimize contact. Little things, like physically shaking hands after games, might continue to be replaced by other ways of showing appreciation for our opponents.”
No matter which precautions remain in place, Boyd says there’s been a shift in how many of the athletes and staff think about their time together.
“I think the biggest difference in sports in the immediate future will be gratitude. I saw how happy and grateful students and coaches were this spring to be able to play the games they love with their friends. I expect that this is something that will continue for a little while.”
Ronnie Vesnaver, Soccer and Lacrosse Coach at Gunston, found that sports were an essential outlet for students during a difficult time.
“This past year has shown me in a very tangible way how important extracurriculars are for our students not just for their own enrichment, but also for their mental health and sense of wholeness,” he says.
This year, Vesnaver wants to harness that power.
“Moving forward, we’re hoping to structure in more traditions and bonding amongst the team on and off the field in order to create a more cohesive and inspired group of players.”
For Juan Angarita, Boys’ Varsity Soccer Coach at Gunston, there are finite takeaways from last year that he hopes to carry into the upcoming athletic seasons: “that we should be thankful for every moment we get to practice and play together,” and “to use our COVID experience as a motivator to build resilience and know we can quickly recover from mistakes and challenging times.”
No matter what the future may hold for these sports programs, it’s no mystery that the coaches and athletics staff are heartened by the determination of their players and have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
By Laura Adams Boycourt