Stowe High School’s athletic teams had to abruptly pull out of their post-season tournaments last week after numerous positive cases of COVID-19 were discovered in Stowe schools.
The finding temporarily sent students back to fully remote learning. For athletes, it was the end of the season.
Athletic director Kevin Lipple said sending out an email last Wednesday to athletes and their families, even as at least one team was already on the bus to its playoff game, was “one of the most difficult things” he’s had to do in his career.
“Everyone worked extremely hard to navigate and execute the season and we got so close to being able to finish it. Your heart goes out to the athletes and coaches who put so much time and passion into their sports and teammates,” Lipple said.
Still, having a season at all meant something to students and coaches. And even though there weren’t fans in the stands, many games were livestreamed, something Lipple hopes will continue, post-pandemic.
“They were able to spend time with their peers, stay active and be a part of a team for almost two full months,” Lipple said. “I believe that the kids and teams are closer than ever after going through the constant changes of the winter season and they showed resilience and enthusiasm the entire time.”
Coach John Decker said the boys on the Stowe basketball team found sweet relief from a world discombobulated by coronavirus. Even just being in practice was a salve.
“It was fantastic for these kids, especially when you’re in remote learning three days a week,” he said.
Coaches don’t just instruct players in the rudiments of the game, although that was a key part of things with this year’s young, inexperienced team. Decker said, of the team’s five starters, three of them “didn’t even sniff” the game until this season.
There’s also coaching about plain old life lessons, and there was a lot of hard growing up for kids this year. Students and athletes have had to adjust over the past year to abruptly changing schedules, both on the court and in the classroom. And, when the call came from Lipple that Stowe teams were all done, bested by coronavirus rather than another team, they rolled with it.
“You get used to being comfortable being uncomfortable,” Decker said. “The kids aren’t ignorant. They get it. They’ll grow and they’ll smile again, and they’ll forget about all the bad feelings.”
He feels bad for the team’s lone senior, Daniel Lyden, who had flourished and was amped for the playoffs, despite the team’s single-win season.
The team made Decker proud with its resilience about facing their would-be playoff opponent, perennial powerhouse Hazen Union, in the opening game that wasn’t to be.
“Those kids were more fired up to play Hazen than you would believe,” Decker said. “Two players said, ‘We’ll get them next year.’”
Girls’ basketball coach Marcy Falcone said it would have been nice for the team to “grow and develop together,” had there been a complete season. However, she, like Decker, was impressed with the teens’ fortitude, despite not winning a game and having to scratch from the playoffs.
“I was amazed at how hard this team worked day in and day out, even when there wasn't a game in sight,” she said. “Our ‘wins’ this season came in the form of each and every player stepping up in their own way to improve their game, stay positive, and support each other.”
She said the goal in a shortened five-game season focused less on wins and losses, and more on “making a difference” for the team. At the beginning of the season, each player was asked to define that, and at the end, they revisited that theme.
Where? On the long bus ride home from a playoff game that was canceled even as the girls were en route to far south Windsor.
Falcone said she was struck by the how some girls described feeling a connection they hadn’t felt during the pandemic outside the team.
“Until this season, I’d never heard the word disconnected used by high school student athletes to describe their general feelings, and it broke my heart,” Falcone said. “If basketball helped them to connect and gave them purpose during this challenging year, that is by far the highlight of the season for me as coach. There will be more games, and more lessons learned from winning and losing. However, many of the lessons learned and successes from this season will be unique, and in that case likely more memorable.”
Karl Lipksy, coach of the combined Peoples/Stowe girls’ hockey team, said a young team that went 0-6 on the season and knocked out of the playoffs before they even began “found it a win just being out on the ice, skating hard and playing the great game of hockey.”
“When games finally started, it was a little nerve-wracking,” Lipsky wrote in an email. “A team of 13 girls, half of them new to hockey, was going head-to-head with the teams we had beat to win the state championship two and half years ago.”
Lipsky said the team was still a force a contender in most of the games, led by seniors Skyler Graves and Abbie Rice, who “set the tone being the leaders.”
For some of the contests, defender Graves was on the ice for two-thirds of the game, shutting down opponents and blocking shots. Rice was up and down the ice, scoring key goals, which boosted team morale, Lipsky said.
He said goalie Iris Cloutiere “stepped up and made the season possible,” stopping between 30 and 40 shots in some games, “making it seem like she had played goalie for years.”
Lipksy said, for him, the highlight of the year was the final regular season game, a home bout against Woodstock. The team was down by two goals but fought back to momentarily take took the lead, thanks to freshman Isabel Donza, who recorded a hat trick that game. Lipsky pulled Cloutier with 1:30 remaining to try to squeeze just a little more offensive output but wasn’t quite enough for the win. “Looking back on this season we were pretty fortunate to be out there playing,” Lipsky said. “The pandemic has hit everyone hard, but the girls were out there having fun six days a week and that’s something to be thankful for.”
As Vermont moves forward with getting the populace vaccinated and team sports again move outside, Lipple is excited about a spring season. It’s been a while; the entire season was canceled last year when no one had any clue how to deal with sports in a pandemic.
“It’s been 20-plus months since a school spring sport was played, so I know the kids will take full advantage of the opportunity,” Lipple said. “You see light at the end of the tunnel with vaccinations becoming readily available. It’s important for us to stay the course and make sure we are doing the things necessary to keep our kids in school and our community safe.”