It started with the ping of a golf ball and ended with the slap of a ball in a mitt.
In the 284 days in between, more than 200,000 high school athletes played nearly 2,000 games during one of the strangest high school sports seasons Massachusetts has ever witnessed, all because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2020-21 MIAA season became one for the history books at 7:19 p.m. Monday night in the tree-enclosed confines of Jack Tripp Field in Taunton when Tigers ace Kelsey White blew a pitch past Wachusett’s Grace Granger for the final out of a 1-0 victory in the Division 1 softball state championship game.
Apropos of the season, it was a championship game that began in June and ended more than 120 hours later, but needed just 25 minutes to conclude after restarting in the top of the sixth inning, mirroring an athletic calendar that began with a handful of golf meets last Sept. 24 and concluded July 5 with two baseball games and nine outs of softball.
“It’s been the longest, shortest season ever,” said first-year Taunton softball coach Carrie Consalvi, who couldn’t even gather her entire team together when she held her first practice April 26. “When we started off this season, we were in masks for weeks. During practices people were in pods. You want to talk about bizarro?”
“It’s been crazy,” agreed Taunton sophomore Kaysie DeMoura, who started the 2020-21 school year playing field hockey and finished it 8 months and 22 days later as she rushed the field to celebrate with her teammates. “From then to now feels like, maybe not longer than normal, but we’ve been pushed and pushed and even this game got postponed.”
The best evidence of exactly how unprecedented the 2020-21 athletic year came with a look around Tripp Field on Monday. Fans lined the outfield fence and packed the bleachers. It looked, and felt, so . . . normal.
Such was the case earlier in the day as fans packed Wahconah Park in Pittsfield and Doyle Field in Leominster, where the final two baseball games of the year were played to packed houses.
“In field hockey it was two parents [attending] and they had to sign a waiver and all this stuff,” said DeMoura, whose team played just four field hockey games last fall. “Here we are in the spring and it’s none of that. We have fans! It felt great to have them here.”
Even on the field, the contrast from the start of the season was stark. When the first soccer and field hockey games kicked off last Sept. 30, players weren’t allowed to make physical contact, everyone was masked, huddles were socially distanced, and field hockey was missing eight players on the field.
While the occasional complaint could be heard from a parent in the stands, and there was inevitable grousing on social media, the players took an “anything is better than nothing” perspective.
“We had to go play baseball with masks on at the beginning of the year, but nobody complained,” Abington baseball coach Steve Perakslis said after his team lost the Division 4 state championship game Saturday. “We just wanted to play baseball. That’s what we did. I’ll remember that.”
No matter what hurdles the pandemic presented, the players persisted. From October through April — including a Fall II season from March to April that provided a home for football and other sports displaced from the usual fall calendar — promising seasons were put on hold, and sometimes derailed, because of team quarantines. Sectional and state playoffs were shelved for three of the four seasons. Conference championships grew exponentially in importance.
“It means a lot because there is nothing else to play for this year,” Brockton boys’ soccer coach Herminio Furtado said after his team claimed a Southeast Conference crown last Nov. 17. “This is it. This is the top title you can get.”
MIAA committees, athletic directors, coaches, trainers and groundskeepers all did their best to keep high school sports going. But the success of the 2020-21 athletic year always hinged on the attitudes of the players themselves.
“It’s been bizarre. It’s been crazy,” Taunton athletic director Mark Ottavianelli said. “One thing we’re all proud of is how the kids handled adversity the whole year. They adapted. We don’t give the kids enough credit.”
Swim meets took place virtually. Wrestling moved from the winter to the spring and, in some cases, outdoors. Free throws looked like technical foul shots. Soccer players couldn’t throw the ball into play. Volleyball added a “COVID” line to keep players away from the net. In many cases, games were played in echoing gyms in front of empty grandstands.
By the time Week 1 of the football season rolled around in March, concerns shifted to weather and field conditions, but, for the most part, the weather held up admirably. But quarantines left schedules tattered, with some teams limited to two games.
“Thank God we had a season,” said running back Kevin Hughes, after his Apponequet team won a South Coast Conference Blue Division football championship May 8, less than four months before the start of the 2021 fall football season, which begins with practices Aug. 20. “It sucks we can’t go any further, but thank God we had a season.”
In mid-March the news came from the MIAA that sectional tournaments would return for the spring season. Days later, state tournaments were added.
“There was a lot of talk at the beginning about just doing sectional championships and not doing state championships, but when you see it in the end, we’re glad,” said MIAA assistant executive director Rob Pearl after presenting Taunton with its trophy. “Having a state championship and a sectional final is a lot different.
“The effort between the state association and the schools was tremendous. We’re really happy with it,” Pearl said. “There was a lot of time and effort that went into it . . . There’s so much that happens with the support staff in the office and coordination with athletic directors.”
That’s how Ottavianelli — whose Taunton High facilities regularly serve as South sectional hosts in softball and basketball before ceding to Worcester State, Holy Cross, and the DCU Center — found himself hosting the final game of the most arduous athletic year.
“I’m happy we got through it,” he said, with just a tinge of fatigue, moments before announcing the resumption of the final state championship game.
A half-hour later, he offered a full-throated addendum:
“This makes it all worth it.”