A year to remember

The gates at Narragansett High School's Zepp Field remain locked after the announcement that the spring sports season has been canceled.

Leave it to one of the best athletes in South Kingstown High School history, a member of the class of 2020, to sum up the mix of heartbreak and perspective that defined sports for much of   2020. 

“My first reaction was obviously that it was sad and disappointing,” Faith Hutchins said in April, when spring sports came to a halt. “But overall, I kind of realized, to feel that way about something means it held a special place in your heart.”

While the pandemic’s impact on sports pales in comparison to its real-world effects, it was significant for athletes, coaches and fans. There was crushing disappointment for winter sports teams that had championship dreams evaporate. Sadness for the spring season that never was. Regret for the fall sports that didn’t make the cut. 

Out of that came creativity, flexibility, perspective and appreciation. When fall sports practices opened, players strapped on masks and took the field. There were smiles underneath. 

“Just being out here today and seeing everyone, even though we do have the masks, is a sign of hope with everything going on in school and everything that’s happened,” South Kingstown soccer player Jane Carr said. 

The first hints that the pandemic would impact sports in Rhode Island came from positive tests at St. Raphael Academy, whose basketball and hockey teams went on to forfeit playoff games. It seemed possible that those would be isolated incidents. Big crowds gathered at CCRI for basketball championship games. Playoffs rolled on. 

A few days later, dominoes began to fall at the national level. NBA games were canceled, college basketball conference tournaments wiped out, March Madness gone. The Rhode Island Interscholastic League started its state basketball tournaments with limited attendance, then made countless adjustments - limited fans, no fans, new venues - before canceling the remainder of the basketball and hockey playoffs. 

It was a tough pill to swallow for several area teams. The South Kingstown girls basketball team wanted to keep rolling after its Division I title. The North Kingstown boys were aiming for a second consecutive state championship, while the girls team was hoping for a run. South Kingstown’s hockey team was streaking into the championship series. 

The University of Rhode Island men’s basketball team was hoping for an Atlantic 10 Tournament run, after a late wobble in a promising season. The postseason would have been a fresh start and a chance to grab an NCAA Tournament berth. The Rams made it to Brooklyn, site of the tournament, but left before playing a game. 

The months that followed were quiet at local fields and gyms. After some initial hope of making something work, spring sports were canceled in April. It was a tough blow for teams like South Kingstown and Prout baseball, who had championship dreams, or South Kingstown lacrosse and softball, who would have been defending champions. URI’s baseball team was off to a terrific start and on a bus to Delaware when the news came in. 

The disappointment trickled down to every athlete, even the ones far from the spotlight. 

“You look at a team like girls lacrosse, where we have 45 girls on the roster,” Narragansett athletic director Matt Mahar said. “We have some girls who are really serious about the sport, but a lot of it is the camaraderie, being part of a team and the whole experience of it all.”

Persistence emerged as a common trait against that backdrop, with creativity to follow. Baseball players posted videos on Twitter of swings in makeshift basement batting cages or pitches from backyard mounds. Social media challenges took off. Narragansett High School’s trainer posted videos of at-home workouts. Ichiban Karate in Wakefield held classes online. North Kingstown High School staged a virtual banquet for its senior athletes. Road races like the Blessing of the Fleet went virtual.

Youth sports programs led the charge in being flexible during the summer. When Little League season would typically be winding down, leagues were ramping up for a summer season, instead of their usual spring campaigns. Several tournaments were staged to make up for the loss of postseason play. 

The Ocean State Waves never took the field in 2020, the NECBL season canceled. But several players who would have donned Waves colors - and members of the coaching staff - joined the pop-up Newport Collegiate Baseball League at Cardines Field. The games were quiet but good, a chance to get back to baseball. One of the Waves, Kennesaw State pitcher Monty Horn, drove from Georgia just for a chance to play. 

““This is probably the longest I’ve ever been away from the field,” Horn said. “Getting back out there was really nice. Get some reps in and get ready for the fall. But also, we don’t really know what’s going to happen, so just to be able to play is great. Any chance you get.”

That outlook colored much of the return of sports. It was not what anyone envisioned - short seasons, masks on - but it was something. 

One can debate the importance of sports amid a global pandemic, whether professional leagues and college sports should be pushing on. It’s fair to question local plans, too. Uncertainty remains as the calendar turns to 2021 - it’s not clear when high school winter sports will start. 

But if given the chance, athletes will cherish it. 

“We weren’t expecting to have a season,” North Kingstown soccer player Emmie Gaston said this fall. “We’re really grateful for that, even with the masks and the other limitations.”

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