Spring sports returns for high schools

Kate Simpson, left, tries to maneuver around Kyla Pascucci during a recent Bishop Guertin girls lacrosse practice. Seasons for all spring teams begin this week. (Telegraph photo by TOM KING)

Milford High School baseball coach Todd Robichaud recounted an extremely unpleasant experience he had a year ago.

“I’m beyond happy to be back after a year away,” Robichaud said in an email. “To tell nine seniors last year that we were not going to have a season was probably one of the hardest things I ever had to do.”

That has all changed, because now Rochichaud and all the other high school coaches, plus their student-athletes, got to gather two weeks ago with concrete plans for a spring high school sports season.

Don’t underestimate how important the return of spring sports is for the student-athletes. Theirs was the only season completely canceled last year due to COVID, and they returned to the practice field on March 29 with that memory still burning.

“They told me it was 677 days since they were together as a team,” Bishop Guertin girls lacrosse coach Leslie Why said. “Multiple kids knew it. My daughter texted (teammates) and said ‘It’s been 638 days.’ And they said, ‘No, it’s been 677.’

“They’d been counting.”

And now, the countdown for seasons to begin for baseball, softball, boys and girls lacrosse, tennis and outdoor track, plus one indoor sport – boys volleyball – is almost over. Competition after a shortened preseason – two weeks instead of the usual three – begins Monday, and by the end of the coming week, just about every team will have opened its season – hopefully.

Yes, fingers, like they were in the fall and winter, are crossed, because one positive test or a possible exposure can cost a season two weeks.

“If everything goes well and stays safe, it will be great for the kids to be back out there,” Nashua North baseball coach Zach Harris said. “Missing a season has presented an extremely difficult challenge and it has taken a developmental year away from a lot of kids that needed it.

“However, getting back to playing spring sports is what is best for the kids, and I couldn’t be more excited for them.”

Harris was right to mention that the joy of returning shouldn’t overshadow what was so important in the fall and winter – the athletes and coaches following all the protocols. New Souhegan softball coach Michelle Sousa mentioned that as well.

“The Sabers are thrilled to be back on the field and ready to play,” she said. “We will diligently be following a strict COVID-19 protocol to keep our team safe and, hopefully, ensure a full season of play.”

The Nashua North softball program was extremely emotional about last year’s cancellation, as coach Jenna Gianelli organized drive-by acknowledgements to senior players’ homes. Gianelli felt that group changed the softball culture at North.

“Last year was emotional for all of us,” Gianelli said, “parents, players and coaches. I had the 2020 seniors as freshmen. … We felt the 2020 season would be more successful than any season we’ve had so far.

“When that got taken away, it was discouraging, but the toughest part was losing a year with a group of girls I’d grown so close with during my time at North.”

And now it’s left to those returning, not only at North, but at every school in every sport.

“The returners,” Alvirne softball coach Emily Kraytenberg said, “are eager to get back out on the field and compete after missing last year.”

Bishop Guertin softball coach Leah Maciejewski says her players have waited patiently, inspired by the previous two school seasons that began in September, through last month.

“We’re ready to get back on the field this year,” she said. “The entire program is looking forward to getting back on the field after a year away. After the successful fall and winter sports seasons, we’re excited to be back representing the Green and Gold.”

Remember, for track and field, this spring season is extra special because the majority of the local teams didn’t see competition during the winter. The pandemic-related lack of access to college facilities, where most regular season and the indoor state meets are held, basically meant that most teams could only practice during the winter, not compete.

“I know the girls are very anxious to get back to real competition,” Merrimack girls track coach Shawn Croteau said. “I can’t wait to see how they perform once we get back to ‘real’ meets.”

Some coaches are basically getting started from scratch. For example, Alvirne boys lacrosse coach Jason Downey has a roster heavy with freshmen and sophomores.

“So about half who have never played one quarter of high school lacrosse due to COVID,” he said.

The coaches have remained realistic, but still lament that lost season.

“It was so heartbreaking that we missed out on the season last spring,” Nashua South softball coach Kevin Handy said. “I strongly believe that we would have competed well last spring.

“I’m excited to have the opportunity to play this season. After missing a year like that, it definitely makes you appreciate it a lot more and never take for granted the opportunity to play and coach.”

South girls tennis coach Charles Gray concurred.

“It’s safe to say,” he said, “that we have a renewed appreciation for the opportunity to be together as a team.”

Teams were allowed by NHIAA rules to have off-season workouts, basically “open gyms” where anyone could show up and work out with a particular sport. That’s helped.

“We put a lot of time and energy into team building in the off-season,” new Souhegan girls coach McKinley Curro said. “The girls have created a strong bond.”

“The Tomahawks have been training all winter and are ready to go,” Merrimack boys lacrosse coach Brian Miller said. “We’re certainly excited to be on a lacrosse field again.”

Some teams have athletes who have been together for several years, even before high school.

“Even though we haven’t played for a year,” Campbell coach Adam Theriault said, “there are high expectations as those core players have been playing together since youth lacrosse.”

Alvirne girls lacrosse coach Carrie Casey knows the exact date of the Broncos last game.

“It’s hard to believe the last time we played was on May 15, 2019,” she said. “Seven of the 11 players returning were freshmen at that time.”

Campbell athletic director Josh Knight is doubling as the boys lacrosse coach this spring, but he knows it’s been a long time without a game.

“After 600 days without a lacrosse game, I’m excited to get a season started. … excited to start playing other teams.”

“Being able to actually play this season is so awesome, even if we do have some restrictions,” Alvirne senior girls lacrosse captain Erin Baker said.

And her teammate, Charlotte Mahoney, said, “It feels really great finally getting back, although there are some changes (new players, protocols, etc.).

“Having the stick back in my hands is what matters.”

Let the 2021 spring season begin, as kids like Mahoney remember what could have been in 2020 and look ahead to what this season may be.