For so many reasons, this fall high school sports season was like no other.
Especially for the Keene High athletic teams, many of which did not have the opportunity to compete in the postseason as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to run its course. Field hockey, boys and girls soccer, volleyball and cross country all had their seasons cut short. But why?
It’s all about student safety, said SAU 29 superintendent Robb Malay.
“There was concern about traveling to a high-risk area and/or competing against a team with known cases,” Malay said.
The school board considers any county that is in the “moderate” or “substantial” community level of transmission based on the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services data to be “high-risk.”
“It was a difficult decision,” Malay said, adding that the vote on the provision was 5-3. “Those measures were put in place to protect the students.
“I’m really proud of our student athletes and coaches,” Malay added. “I share in their disappointment, but I also understand the greater obligation.”
The restrictions applied to all teams, Malay said, and there was no discussion about individual sports.
This, in particular, was frustrating to the coaches and some members of the boys and girls cross country teams, who felt that their sport was a low risk. The teams were not allowed to compete in this year’s NHIAA state meet or the Meet of Champions.
“The very sport is running away from your competition, which is social distancing, essentially,” said junior Jonathan Hills, a member of Keene’s boys cross country team. “So we had hope, as our sport was one of the low-risk sports, that we’d have the opportunity to compete in states.”
The NHIAA had set their own provisions to ensure a safe championship race. The provisions required everyone to wear masks when not running and gave each team a designated area, spaced apart from the other team areas. The runners also ran in waves, each about 10 seconds apart, to avoid congregation at the starting line. All the schools in each division (D-I, II and III) were given specific arrival and departure times, so each team was only at the course for a total of two to three hours. All the teams from each division were required to leave the course before the teams from the next division arrived.
But the school board stuck to the rules they originally agreed upon. The race was in Manchester, which was listed under “substantial” community level of transmission at the time.
“I understand their desire to keep everyone safe … but there are things that were done that I think were very realistic to allow a very safe situation,” said Keene boys cross country head coach David Goldsmith.
There was support for the school board’s decision among the coaches and athletes of the cross country team, but obvious disappointment in not having the opportunity to compete at the pinnacle event of the season.
“I think there were goals and challenges that were left on the table, but that was out of our control,” Hills said.
And it wasn’t just the cross country teams who felt like they missed out on certain goals.
The boys soccer team had to forfeit their playoff match against Concord because of the travel restrictions. The Blackbirds made it to the quarterfinal round of last year’s NHIAA tournament before falling to the eventual state champs in Hanover, and they thought they could do even better this year.
“Most people on the team that were here last year felt that … we were better this year than we had been,” said senior Jonas O’Mara, a captain of the boys soccer team. “So, yeah, it was tough, because we felt like we could make a run.”
But, through all the frustration and disappointment, there was a sentiment of gratitude that the teams could compete this fall.
“I’m very thankful to our board for allowing us to compete at all,” Malay said. ”Without that, it would’ve been really devastating to that group of students. Having that support in place … was absolutely critical to allow those students to stay connected.”
“I really enjoyed the season because everyone had a really positive attitude throughout the entire thing,” said senior Amelia Opsahl, a captain of the girls cross country team. “Everyone was just happy to be together and running again.
“(The season) got cut short, which was disappointing, but I was just happy to run with the team again,” she added.
The only thing Keene fall sports teams can do now is focus on the future and hope that they’ll have a full season next year.
“I’m hoping that parents, teachers, administrators and epidemiologists are all working towards getting these kids back to an opportunity to do what they can naturally do, not only for the success for our program but obviously what these kids will gain over the course of their lifetime,” Goldsmith said.