Teams and seniors: What might have been

A TIGER LACROSSE game last year.

Sports writers like to call their sections the “Toy Department.” Most recently I came across that reference in a Boston Globe piece by longtime columnist Dan Shaughnessy.

In many ways it’s hard to argue with that description. 

There are days — on the sidelines of a game on a sunny fall day at Mount Abraham with foliage at its peak, in a packed Vergennes gym for a rivalry hoop game, listening to the Otter Valley pep band rock the House of Noise, or hearing the Doc Collins Field crowd roar as a Middlebury running back breaks into the open — when it’s hard to believe this is work.

But the description isn’t really fair, and not just because afterward I hit the keyboard. Sports matter.

I’m not going to compare the value of sports to the job educators do, especially now that they are facing the challenges of remote learning and supplying meals. 

Or to the work now being done by healthcare providers, grocery store workers, first responders — all those on the front lines of a pandemic. 

But athletics have value, and not only for their ability to entertain and unite many of us.  

Before that discussion, let’s backtrack a bit. About the same time that Shaughnessy piece came out I began interviewing coaches for this 2020Independent Spring Sports Report. 

There was hope, however slim, that a semblance of a spring season could be salvaged when those interviews were conducted. The stories about the teams in this special section reflect the fact that coaches were uncertain about whether their teams would or could compete; certainly some were more optimistic than others, and why shouldn’t they have been hopeful their athletes have a chance to enjoy their sports?

As it turned out, the Vermont Principals’ Association finally made its decision on April 30: There will be no season. 

It was a sad, but ultimately inevitable choice with which the editors and I agree. Even with the success Vermonters have seen so far in containing COVID-19 the risks remain too great. 

Even before the VPA’s decision we had largely made the assumption there would be no season for our Spring Sports Report. It mostly focuses on the seniors who are losing their final chance to enjoy their sports and teammates. This section foregoes the usual team photos, rosters and schedules. 

Instead it will look at what all the coaches agreed upon: Most athletes, especially seniors, had worked hard for this season; those athletes, especially the seniors, are being deprived of reaping the rewards of their preparation; and they had already learned valuable lessons from what they had done individually and collectively to prepare for their seasons.

Now let’s turn back for a moment to the larger lessons of sport. Again, they should not be overstated. But my conversations with coaches this spring were both heartwarming and heartbreaking about what sports meant to them and the athletes.

A couple examples should help sum up.   

I’ve known Tiger girls’ lacrosse coach Brandi Whittemore since she was a freshman teammate of my older daughter, a 2010 MUHS graduate. I’ve watched her mature into a poised young woman, and now she credits her high school and Castleton State College sports experience for boosting her character and thriving career. 

We talked about sports teaching her the value of teamwork, preparation to achieve goals, and discipline. Brandi told me she brought up what she learned from her team sports background in every job interview she has ever had.

And while all the coaches talked about what the seniors are missing this spring, Brandi and Mount Abe softball coach Donnie McCormick took it one step further: Younger athletes are also losing out the chance to learn from their senior teammates, they said.

“I know the heart and the leadership from our seniors would have helped our young pitchers thrive,” Donnie told me. 

So, yes, sports sections are Toy Departments. But educators will tell you that toys help kids learn.

Here’s to the senior athletes. While we’re all sorry about what they and their teammates have lost this spring, we also celebrate what they have accomplished in their high school years and know they will accomplish so much more. 

Click here to read the full 2020 Spring Sports Report.

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