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H.S. coaches, administrators marvel at how athletes have adapted during pandemic

Fall sports at Norwich Free Academy were paused on Oct. 1 following a community-wide outbreak of COVID-19 in Norwich that forced the town's schools to revert back to all-remote learning.

It was a low point, certainly, for the athletes who had been waiting to compete again since the onset of the novel coronavirus derailed last year's winter season and precipitated the cancellation of the spring.

NFA football coach Jason Bakoulis sees it a different way, speaking of the positives which have come out of the COVID-19 crisis. The main one: the self-motivation he's seen among the members of the Wildcats' football team.

"First off, the kids have done a phenomenal job with everything, going all the way back to when this first started," Bakoulis said. "For me to be a coach, to be an alum, I'm just proud to be a part of a program where these kids will fight.

"We're all very, very excited for that opportunity (to play again). But whatever today brings, we take care of it. Our guys, we've been doing this since March, with them having to train on their own. It's that ability to have self-motivation during this time."

NFA, expected to be eligible to resume competing on Oct. 19, is one of the region's schools which had to halt athletics due to the virus. East Lyme High School shifted to full distance learning for two weeks as of last Wednesday after three people in the school community tested positive for COVID-19 and is eligible to compete again on Oct. 22.

St. Bernard School is scheduled to resume practice Wednesday and start competing on Friday. Norwich Tech has also had to temporarily cease competing.

NFA athletic director Roy Wentworth said Monday that although teams can't compete until the 19th, he's hoping the Wildcats will be granted permission to practice following the 14-day quarantine period (this week), so that they might be physically ready to play by the date of resumption.

"We're hoping to assess the fitness and determine when we would be able to begin," Wentworth said. "I don't think it would be just me making the determination. The coaches, the trainer would be observing as well. Certainly I would make the rounds.

"I sent an email to Dr. (Brian) Kelly (NFA head of school) and kind of told him that's the plan I'd like to pursue. He allowed it to be a possibility but we're still a long way out."

East Lyme athletic director Steve Hargis said his teams will have a total of 61 events canceled during the shutdown. Some are able to be rescheduled and Hargis said he is attempting to rearrange things a bit so the Vikings are able to keep their more traditional rivals on their slate of games.

"The goal is to keep people apart but still try to keep the teams in sync," Hargis said. "It's a shame."

Hargis, however, said he has "the best staff that you could ask for; we have a lot of seasoned coaches out there" and believes East Lyme will come out of the shutdown with its athletes ready to go.

Hargis echoed Bakoulis' belief that the athletes have learned to be self-reliant during this pandemic.

"This whole thing is really testing these kids' ability to adapt," Hargis said. "They have to organize themselves in an independent way. You can give them the outline but they have to be the athletes.

"It will speak to the leadership of the teams. 'OK, this is the problem. Let's solve it.' Let's just keep moving ourselves forward. (The season) was very promising and it still is."

Bakoulis continues to reach out to his team via Zoom video conferencing. He has incorporated other brands of competition: a Madden tournament (a football video game) and an academic competition.

"Right now, we can't control football but we can control our academics," Bakoulis said. "To sit there and be upset over something you have no control over ...

"I've even said this with my health and PE students. This entire pandemic and remote learning has taught them how to be self-motivators. They'll have more success in life: family life, career life, community life (because of this). I told them, 'I'm not knocking on your door when you're 30 years old to remind you to get your physical activity in.

"I'm just proud of how our kids have handled it."

St. Bernard athletic director Sue Griffin said she marveled at the great shape the athletes were in when they reported for the fall season, especially some of the runners, who were able to train on their own over the summer.

She is also of the belief that they will have handled the latest shutdown in the same manner.

"I'm confident the kids continued to do the workouts (on their own)," Griffin said. "Knowing what they did all summer, they were so fit. The kids that are serious about their athletics are in great shape. I was really surprised how fit they are.

"St. Bernard has done a great job right from when we hit this in March. Mr. (Donald) Macrino's leadership (as head of school) has been wonderful. We're all being very resilient."



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