For all the historic trauma the world has been through with the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 represented hope. Hope that things will get better. Hope that life would move a bit closer to normal. Hope that it would bring a return of the people and the things we love.
That included sports.
Sure, sports and games are not necessities of life like food, water and oxygen, but they are important. They are valuable ingredients to the human spirit.
That has been one of the lessons learned from the deadly hold this coronavirus has taken on the world. Sports can lift people’s spirits, and after 2020, spirits needed lifting.
Fans returned to arenas and stadiums. After Long Island public schools took the fall off (all schools missed the 2020 spring season with the COVID-19 outbreak seemingly bringing the world to a standstill), high school sports returned in January. Like a wary bather at first cautiously dipping a toe into a hot tub, it began with so-called low- and moderate-risk high school winter sports, ending over nine months of athletic inactivity. Some doubted it would happen so fast, but recognized its importance to the athletes, as much for their mental health as their physical fitness.
Things were still far from normal. The word “strange” kept coming to mind.
The three high school sports seasons were compressed into about eight weeks each in the first half of 2021. Suffolk County athletic directors voted to prohibit spectators at practices and events during the winter season. Athletes competed — and still do — while wearing face coverings. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association canceled all winter and fall state championships. Winter track, normally an indoor sport, was run outdoors — dual meets only.
And then came a big thumbs up from the NYSPHSAA when it gave its approval for high-risk sports that had been postponed indefinitely to begin practice and competition on Feb. 1.
“From a parent perspective, this is great news,” NYSPHSAA executive director Dr. Robert Zayas said during a Zoom news conference. “From an executive director of the state high school athletic association perspective, this is great news, but it’s phenomenal news for our student-athletes.”
As part of the strangeness, we saw a compact “fall” sports season played in the months of March and April. For the first time in 12 months, spectators were permitted to attend high school sporting events — on a limited basis. A brief preseason was followed by congested game schedules. Health protocols included weekly COVID-19 testing for athletes in high-risk sports such as football and volleyball, face coverings and social distancing.
“It always makes a difference with the fans,” Mattituck soccer player Bryan Soto said. “You just like the noise. You like having people there, watching you.”
Chris Golden, Greenport’s athletic director at the time of the announcement regarding fans, said: “If you would have asked me who took the brunt of the restrictions and the regulations, it’s the kids. It’s the kids. To me, I don’t want to use the word suffer, but they experienced, I think, the greatest loss of what they were used to doing.
“We’re seeing the kids, they’re happy, they’re smiling, they’re playing, they’re getting back into it. That for me, by far and away, that’s the best thing about this school year right now.”
There were smiles behind those face masks. Athletes who may have all but written off their chances of having a season were overjoyed. “We were all very excited, very hyper just to get back on the court again,” said Greenport/Southold volleyball player Courtney Cocheo.
Things opened up even more for the spring season. This fall the high school seasons returned to their normal lengths.
Pandemic aside, 2021 left us with some nice memories: Southold boys soccer coach Andrew Sadowski, who earlier in the season picked up his 300th career win, celebrated his birthday with the First Settlers’ 23rd county championship since 1978 in April; the Mattituck girls cross-country team pulled off a triple crown last spring, winning league, division and county titles; the Mattituck girls volleyball team won consecutive league and county titles in the same calendar year, reaching the state tournament for a seventh time this fall; two Mattituck baseball pitchers, Connor Fox and Andrew Berman, threw a combined no-hitter — in a game the Tuckers lost!; Southold baseball player Dylan Newman, battling a rare type of bone cancer that kept him out of baseball for two years, returned to play for his team.
Some crazy, memorable stuff from a crazy year.