A year ago, an entire high school season was cancelled by the coronavirus pandemic. Players and coaches alike were sidelined, not knowing when they’d return to play.
A year later, coaches are returning to work with teams they last saw in 2019.
A year of program development has been irrevocably lost, yet coaches are enthusiastic about adapting to the challenges and getting back on the field.
As they prepared for the 2021 season that opens Saturday, area coaches reflected on the time away, how it affected their team and how they’re preparing for the impending campaign.Baseball
The last time the Cheshire baseball team graced the diamond was in the 2019 Class LL state semifinals against Staples. The Rams ultimately lost 3-0, ending a 25-game win streak and concluding the season at 25-2.
Almost two years later, the Rams are back with a very different squad. Only one player on this year’s roster has varsity experience, and that’s senior shortstop Ryan Scialabba. He was on the 25-2 team of 2019 as well as the 2018 team that won the Class LL state championship.
“He’s our senior captain and he’s the only one who’s actually seen varsity pitching,” head coach Mike Lussier said. “(Monday) was the first time that eight of the nine kids saw varsity pitching.”
The inexperience will be a challenge, but Lussier has been working diligently with his team to learn each player’s skillset and find their best position.
In previous years, Lussier said, he would know what to expect from the underclassmen. After 2020, the scenario is certainly different.
“It’s affected everybody,” Lussier said. “For the teams that were top heavy, there was a disadvantage for them because they could have had seniors that could have done some damage, and who knows? But everyone loses out. No one really got the chance to see the freshmen and sophomores that are coming up.”
Lussier expects some road bumps during the season given the inexperience, but he’s excited to use the moments to teach the players. He said his goal, like most coaches, is to win games, but he wants the players to grow, mature and be successful.
“We might be taking our lumps this year because we’re young, but I have no problem with that because if I could develop a young kid to get better, that’s the whole idea that I believe in for coaching.”Tennis
The Southington girls tennis team was primed for a strong season last year. The roster was headlined by eight seniors. Zero of them played at all, though.
Now, head coach Robin Thompson enters the 2021 season with four seniors, five juniors and a group of underclassmen that hasn’t had an opportunity to play high school tennis yet.
“The freshmen and the sophomores are all like one super big freshman class because the sophomores — the kids that are now sophomores — never got a chance last year to play,” Thompson said. “So they’ve lost a whole year of growth opportunity (and) of playing.”
It’s not just the underclassmen who will have to adjust. The seniors will, too. Missing last season meant more than just losing out on valuable playing time. The current seniors missed out on key teaching moments from the previous year’s seniors.
With that and the overall inexperience, Thompson is taking a slightly different approach in 2021, one that she hasn’t employed in a number of years.
“There’s going to be a lot more instruction as far as not only skills, but also on strategy, constructing points, how to play the game of tennis, because the vast majority of the kids that are going to be in our lineup this year have no experience to fall back on,” Thompson said.
While Thompson knows that there’s “no way to catch up” on what was missed last year, she is “thrilled” to work with her players this year. Additionally, she sees the significance of returning to play.
“I think it’s important for the kids to have this opportunity now to get back outside and play,” Thompson said. “So many things have been shut down for them. I think this is a great thing for them not only physically, but emotionally.”Softball
Lyman Hall softball head coach Stephanie Lavado-Berghorn had her hopes “crushed” after the 2020 season was postponed a number of times and then eventually canceled. So she’s excited to get back to playing this season.
“We went into this school year with a lot of hope that there was going to be a spring season,” Lavado-Berghorn said. “And slowly but surely, we are getting a little bit more and more and more excited every day.”
The challenge? Quarantine. There are 20 girls on the roster this year, as opposed to roughly 30 in other years. That said, the number could dip if people are required to quarantine.
“It’s hard to plan ahead, have practice plans, scrimmage schedules, rosters,” said Lavado-Berghorn, who has already been around the pandemic block as head coach of Lyman Hall’s field hockey team and an assistant coach on its boys swim team. “It’s hard to have an idea of who you want playing in what position when you honestly don’t know who’s going to be there on a day-to-day basis based on quarantining.”
Though the pandemic has presented challenges, Lavado-Berghorn has worked around it. She and the coaching staff have utilized Google Classroom to set up drills that quarantined players can do at home. That way, they can remain active.
Furthermore, Lavado-Berghorn is looking to continue to build the program’s culture, and toward that end she credits her four senior captains, Alex Tennero, Gianna Scopetto, Paige Hansen and Emily Chase.
“They have been amazing at developing that culture even more, even without having a season last year,” Lavado-Berghorn said.
In Meriden, Maloney softball head coach Scott Aresco is preparing for his season with five returning varsity players and 12 underclassmen. Because the team missed out on last season, he’s going to be training the freshmen and sophomores.
In addition to this, Aresco said the preseason is shorter, so there are fewer scrimmages and less time to prepare.
“So what I want to put in (is) our first-and-third plays, our bunt defense, our offensive strategy, our cutoffs and relays,” Aresco said. “It’s going to take longer because … half the team hasn’t had that experience.”
Although Aresco knows it may take a few weeks for the team to find its footing, he thinks it will be “very good.” The Spartans will be in Class LL for just the second time in the 20 years Aresco has been coaching.
“The competition is going to be a little bit better in the state tournament, but hopefully we get hot at the right time,” Aresco said. “I like where we are right now being so early in the season.”Track and field
Unlike other sports, track and field has multiple seasons. There’s indoor and outdoor track in the winter and spring, respectively. In the fall, there’s cross country. Some athletes run in multiple seasons.
Still, losing out on the outdoor track season in 2020 hurt the athletes.
“There’s different adaptations your body makes between sprints and jumps, throws and distance run,” Southington track and cross country coach Dan Dachelet said. “You missed a whole season of skill development in a lot of these things for the technical events like the long jump, triple jump, the throws.”
In terms of the distance runners, Dachelet said one needs to run all year to be good. As for sprinters, he said, they lose strength with the time off.
When things were shut down last spring, Southington girls track and field head coach Connor Green sent workouts to his team and hosted virtual workouts. He continued that throughout the summer, hoping to keep his team motivated.
Now, Dachelet and Green are working in person with the team, preparing for the looming season. While players are now organized into small training cohorts of 4-6 people, the training itself hasn’t changed.
“Not at all,” Green said when asked if he’s preparing differently. “I would say it’s business as usual. We’re going for another girl’s conference title and, hopefully, a state title, and then the boys are looking to be very competitive as well.”