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    Friday, February 03, 2023

    For most, news of COVID sports shutdown came via ping of a cellphone

    COVID-19 safety protocols have led to some major changes in the games we play. The NFA girls, for instance, hold halftime breaks in the Alumni Gym lobby instead of their locker room in order to properly social distance. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    It's become second nature to respond to a ping on your cellphone, whether it be a text message or an alert from a social media site.

    And that, in the simplest of terms, is how most athletes and coaches learned that the 2020 winter season had become victim to a COVID-19 pandemic that has gone on to turn the sports world upside down for the past 12 months.

    Aedan Using, a senior basketball player at Old Lyme High School, was in school on the morning of March 10 when he received a text alert on Twitter with devastating news: the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference was immediately canceling play right in the middle of the state tournament.

    "In most cases your season is ended by loss or by winning a championship, something tangible," Using said that day. "All I have to prove that I'm never going to play basketball again in high school is a tweet on my phone."

    Two days later, Coast Guard Academy's Noah Caskey — a freshman wrestler from Montville — was joined by head coach Kevin Bratland to greet Caskey's parents outside of the team's hotel in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when Bratland stepped away to read a new text message.

    This message: NCAA officials had canceled the Division III national championships on the eve of the two-day tournament.

    At first, Caskey thought the coaching staff was joking to keep the mood light.

    "They're like, 'No, we're serious,'" Caskey said. "They had to say it once or twice. We just couldn't believe it. ... It was Thursday night and a bunch of parents had just got there, including mine.

    "Coach comes up and gives us the news. We were all shocked. We weren't thinking about, 'Oh, this could get canceled.' It was disappointing. It was heartbreaking to see our seniors not get to go out and perform how I know they can."

    It was a scene that played out throughout the country.

    A contingent of track and field athletes from Coast Guard and Connecticut College were in Raleigh, N.C. for the NCAA Division III indoor championships only to learn the meet was being canceled less than 24 hours before its start.

    It was a double whammy for Conn College, which had already learned that its league, the New England Small College Athletic Conference, had decided to pull the plug on all spring sports, too. Women's coach Ned Bishop was hoping the indoor championships would provide some solace for his seniors.

    "First, they were having a tough time emotionally with that," Bishop said of the NESCAC announcement. "Is this really happening? Is this for real? Then it hit them that it really was. ... we still thought the meet was going to go on at that point.

    "Once we got the news it was like another block of concrete landing on you after you had already gotten used to what the first one felt like."

    At least winter athletes were able to complete the majority of their 2019-20 seasons. High school athletes never got started in the spring, leaving seniors — especially those with no plans to compete beyond high school — completely helpless. Schools did, however, stage socially distanced Senior Day events and Waterford softball coach Andy Walker made certain to gather his five seniors for a portrait on the new turf complex. The seniors never got to play a game at the facility, which was slated to open in the spring.

    Summer baseball was also a casualty, for the most part, with the minor league Norwich Sea Unicorns never getting to debut their new logo and colors at Dodd Stadium, the Mystic Schooners of the New England Collegiate Baseball League taking the season off along with American Legion baseball and traditional Little League baseball and softball all-star play.

    High school sports did resume in the fall — albeit featuring abbreviated, geographic schedules with stringent COVID-19 protocols, no fans and no state tournaments. Football, for instance, canceled its traditional season, allowing only a 7 vs. 7 passing format with lineman challenges to keep its athletes engaged, while many teams played limited schedules after being forced into 14-day quarantines following positive COVID-19 test.

    College sports were canceled during the fall, including UConn football, although Coast Guard did play one football game — its annual game against traditional rival Merchant Marine in Kings Point, N.Y.

    College basketball and hockey returned at UConn in the winter of 2020, but that was it until the new year.

    Winter high school sports, except for wrestling, were granted permission to hold abbreviated, geographic-based seasons over a two-month period that began in February, and numerous college programs have held a handful of winter events. And like the previous fall season, no spectators have been allowed.

    Basketball players, coaches and officials have adapted to wearing masks (with one mask break per quarter), the bench area is regularly sanitized and players socially distance on the sideline. Gymnasts and swimmers must also wear masks but can remove them for individual competition.

    As we reach one full year of dealing the COVID-19, there is some good news. Barring any unforeseen changes, a traditional spring high school schedule is in the works.

    In the meantime, completing the current winter season on a positive note is the goal.

    "I'm just going to try and enjoy the rest of it," NFA boys' basketball coach Chris Guisti said. "It's a blessing we're even playing.''

    c.banning@theday.com

    Griswold athletic director Steve Cravinho disinfects a game ball during a timeout in the boys' basketball game against Plainfield on Feb. 22. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    NFA players take one of their four mandatory mask breaks during a Feb. 26 game against Fitch at Alumni Gym in Norwich. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Waterford softball coach Andy Walker poses his five seniors for a photograph on the new softball field last May. The Lancers were going to make their debut on the field in 2020 until the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the season, denying Walker's seniors and all high school seniors a chance to finish their spring careers. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    The socially-distanced Coast Guard Academy bench, with the women's basketball team watching from the bleachers, watches the Bears play Mitchell College on Feb. 27 in New Lodon. The gym was divided so people attending the game that had a recent a COVID-19 test could sit on the side of the court where the team benches were located. (Dana Jensen/The Day)(Dana Jensen/The Day)
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