The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with sports worldwide — canceled competitions, shortened seasons or none at all, pro teams playing to empty seats, drastic drops in revenue.
Sports closer to home have been fouled up, too. Student athletes — veterans and up-and-comers alike — are learning to live with the loss of something they love so much, and it’s had a devastating affect on mental health and well-being.
“Sports in general are huge for mental health,” Sage Bennett, a junior at South Burlington High School, said. Bennett plays tennis in the spring, golf in the fall and skis alpine in the winter.
She said the loss of her spring tennis season was tough to take, and the inability to participate in any sports — and in-person learning — impacted almost every part of her life.
“I couldn’t perform as well academically, socially. It made the whole lockdown harder,” Bennett said. She felt like it was tough at times to stay sane.
Will they or won’t they?
The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Vermont just in time to cancel the end of the high school winter sports season last year. It delayed, and then eventually canceled, the spring season, leaving athletes on the hook for more than a month.
The cooperative baseball team from Peoples Academy and Stowe held Zoom meetings last April, working out individually and trying to stay in shape to be ready if a shortened season got the green light.
In the end, however, the spring season got canceled.
“I can’t imagine what it did to those guys, looking forward to coming out and making a statement, testing their mettle, and then to have all that taken away,” said Ian Lanpher of Stowe, whose son plays on the cooperative baseball team with Peoples.
Along with Keith Woodland, the head coach of the PA-Stowe squad, Lanpher helped organize a summer team for Lamoille County longballers to help overcome that loss.
But before that team got the go-ahead later in 2020, things looked bleak.
“It was pretty difficult having the spring season stripped away from us,” agreed Sofia Richland. Another junior at South Burlington, Richland plays volleyball and hockey for the Wolves but softball, the season she lost last spring, is her true passion.
“We were going to be pretty good, I felt like we were going to win the title and that got taken away from us. It sucked,” she said.
Richland wants to play softball in college. The loss of her summer season — when she and her travel team should have been playing all over the Northeast, showcasing their skills in front of college coaches — hit hard.
“It’s really difficult, I’m trying to get into a nice school for the sport I want to pursue,” Richland said. The pandemic “just keeps beating us down.”
Staffers at the Vermont Principal’s Association, which oversees all high school sports in the state, know they need to keep as many sports going as possible during the pandemic.
“We’ve understood from the very beginning that the whole emotional health for students is very important,” said Bob Johnson, the associate executive director of the principals association.
Schools in general are trying to help students work through feelings of isolation caused by the pandemic, and sports are one way to accomplish that.
That’s one reason the principals’ association successfully pushed for a fall athletic season, albeit one that was shorter and looked quite different than a typical fall sports season.
Johnson said it’s a balancing act. Keeping students as safe as possible and limiting possible exposure to COVID-19 is a must, but so to is giving them access to extra-curriculars that are vital to their mental health and happiness.
What was lost
Devonte Jackson, a senior at South Burlington, loves basketball. He got his junior season in just under the wire, but his spring and summer AAU seasons went by the wayside — affecting his recruiting process for college and leaving him feeling rudderless.
“No motivation to get up, lift weights, work out. I was just like, there’s no point,” Jackson said.
Athletes who lost their spring high school season felt much the same way.
“I’m always motivated to do well in school to play,” Richland said. “Not having that, it really messed with my head. I could not get anything done.”
That didn’t really change until she was able to play, or practice, softball later in the summer.
Discipline isn’t a dirty word
High school sports can be a grind, with athletes practicing, training and working out late into the night or early in the morning, on top of their regular schoolwork. For many, that jam-packed schedule is a good thing.
“It’s always a struggle, but it keeps me busy and I like that. It keeps me accountable,” Mercedes Rozzi said. The South Burlington High School junior plays soccer, basketball and lacrosse.
She missed out on her entire sophomore lacrosse season.
“Having that taken away from me, having nothing to do all day, I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she said. “I was always bored, I didn’t have strong mental health. It was a very long string of events. It just kept getting worse and worse. It just piled on students.”
Unlike many of her classmates, South Burlington junior McKenna Sweet doesn’t play multiple sports.
She’s a track and field athlete, which means she lost her spring season sophomore year. The indoor track and field season, typically held in the winter, was canceled, too, so Sweet has now lost two straight seasons to COVID-19.
“It’s definitely hard, for myself and my teammates,” Sweet said. “Track is an outlet for stress for everything,” even in normal times.
And the pandemic has only heightened the need for student-athletes to have an outlet to channel that stress.
“Coming back to school, I was glad to be back,” Sweet said. “But then they canceled this winter. It was hard because we were all working so hard, it felt ripped away.”
Even as the spigot began to turn, many student-athletes weren’t able to escape the unhappiness losing their sport caused until things began to return to normal, later in the summer.
Jackson said he wasn’t able to snap out of it until late June, when he and his basketball teammates decided to take things into their own hands, running and working out together as much as safety protocols allowed.
“It got me back into the rhythm of things, and I felt a lot better,” Jackson said. Now, he’s hoping that his final high school hoops season can include some actual games this winter.
Alex Lanpher, a junior at Stowe High School who plays on the cooperative baseball team with Peoples Academy, said, “We lost that spring season but didn’t lose a full year.”
The summer-league team that Lanpher’s father Ian and Woodland organized was key to that bounce back. The ad hoc team was made up mostly of student-athletes from Stowe, Peoples and Lamoille Union.
They played a condensed schedule that didn’t include any out-of-state competition, but it was competitive baseball nonetheless and offered a much-needed outlet.
“Better to play some baseball than no baseball,” said Cole Woodland, Keith’s son and one of the few players on that squad not from Lamoille County.
For some of the athletes on the team, that summer league squad was a life changer.
“It was tough. I didn’t really have any direction before I found this program with Keith and Ian,” Julian Flores said.
Flores, a senior at Lamoille Union, hopes to play baseball in college after wrapping up his high school career with a senior season at Lamoille this spring.
“They showed me the way, it was awesome and gave me the opportunity to play some ball through these trying times — a light at the end of the tunnel,” Flores said.
Ian Lanpher said it was a huge relief for players, getting a sense of normalcy in a hectic period, to “get on the field and have that sense of camaraderie, sense of team.”
“I know it was for us coaches,” the elder Lanpher said.
Vermont’s winter sports season has been off to a slow start, but it is inching along. Delayed by over a month as COVID-19 cases spiked in Vermont as 2020 came to an end, teams were finally given the go-ahead to start non-contact practices late in December. That’s been upped to include full-contact practices as January comes to a close, and Nordic and alpine skiing competitions are just getting started. Hockey and basketball games are still on hold, but all those teams have been holding practices, and even that is a major boon for student athletes and their mental health.
“At least we were able to start practices. If we still weren’t allowing practices, that would be unbearable,” said Johnson of the principals’ association.
Student-athletes tend to agree: Rozzi said the loss of competition in the spring season was rough, but not even being able to interact with her own teammates during practice made it worse.
Practices are good, but Johnson said the hope is that interschool basketball and hockey competitions can still begin again later this winter, allowing for a shortened season — and more relief for the student-athletes who will benefit from it.
“We want to go up to that next step as soon as the state says it’s safe,” Johnson said. “We have to wait til they make that decision, but we’re ready to go. I think some schools would be ready to play tomorrow if we told them they could.”
The signs are still positive for some type of a winter season, but that doesn’t ease the fear from students of missing more of what they love.
“Hockey, if it doesn’t happen, that’s going to be really hard all over,” Richland said.
Hopes for a spring season, which like the fall season, could be played outdoors with masks and proper social distancing, are also high.
“It’s looking good,” Alex Lanpher said. “I really hope we can, I think it could really help us better ourselves.”
“I have full confidence we will have a baseball season,” added Lamoille Union’s Flores. “We got through last June and July, some pretty bad circumstances. I think we’ll get through this.”