Benedictine baseball coach Sean Ryan had never done a whole lot of fieldwork until last spring.
But after he, along with so many other spring sports athletes and coaches around the country, lost the entire 2020 season to the pandemic, Ryan began spending hours mowing and pulling weeds at Benedictine’s Hyman Field.
“It was an escape,” Ryan said. A year later, his Cadets (9-6) are more than halfway through their 2021 slate, and Ryan’s appreciation for playing has been magnified by the pandemic.
“It’s a blessing,” he said. “We’re grateful to have the opportunity to be out there.”
That unique gratitude toward returning to the field in 2021 is shared by many spring sports athletes and coaches. While fall and winter high school athletes had seasons cut short, abbreviated and postponed because of the pandemic, spring sports participants were the only ones to lose a season in its entirety.
And as public schools this week begin play in their first spring season since 2019, coaches and players are still grappling with the effects of the season that never was.
Cosby softball coach Ray Jeter, who had all but two players returning in 2020 from a team that reached the 2019 Class 6 championship, said he didn’t know what to do with himself a year ago.
“I was just dreaming about softball,” said Jeter. “I was devastated beyond belief. I think I was depressed, I really do. It becomes so much a part of your life.”
That same emotional toll was felt by many players. Collegiate girls soccer coach Rob Ukrop said the social component of high school athletics is pivotal to student-athletes’ long-term development, and its absence left a void.
The Cougars (7-1) played their first game March 26.
“Everybody last year, the lack of interaction with one another, it was this hole in your life,” Ukrop said. “We remind the girls every day we come out here that we don’t know what’s going to happen. This might be your last training session, this might be our last game together.
“So come out full force, do everything you can to enjoy your teammates and put your best foot forward and hopefully this [season] will continue.”
Although they can’t yet do team breakfasts and outings like they used to, Ukrop said his coaching staff has made a concerted effort in 2021 to give players more time to socialize and build relationships on the field. The chance for his players to “build lifelong friendships” is what Ukrop missed most while sidelined in 2020.
Ukrop, Ryan and Jeter all said travel ball and competition outside a high school setting helped players replace the on-field developmental opportunities lost in 2020. But they’ve still had to make adjustments in 2021 to compensate for the game and practice time.
Ryan thinks about the upperclassmen who’ve never played a varsity inning.
“You’d better bring a level of patience that you haven’t had before,” he said.
“The expectation that someone knows what they’re supposed to be doing because they’re a senior isn’t necessarily true. They haven’t been on the field enough. They haven’t succeeded or failed to start learning. The full year of development is a big thing. And it’s no fault of the players, it’s just what we’re dealing with.”
Ukrop had 12 experienced seniors on his 2020 team. Going into this season, he was left with less than five players who’d competed in a real varsity game.
“It was kind of like my first day coaching a high school team at Collegiate,” he said, adding that his Cougars have focused less on drills and tactics in training, instead aiming to simulate as much game action as possible.
“It was just brand new for everyone.”
Jeter and Cosby have been somewhat lucky, he said. The chemistry for his Titans, who began play Tuesday against Powhatan, is particularly strong. They return 10 seniors, many of whom were on the 2019 state finalist team as sophomores. Some have played together for much of their lives.
“The girls have picked up where they left off,” he said. “They’re just champing at the bit, they want to start competing and see where we are.”
Ryan said his Cadets have had an unusually high level of morale this spring. And he’s heard that sentiment echoed by other area coaches whose teams are together and competing for the first time in nearly two years.
“The kids have been great, they’ve been resilient, they’ve been excited, they’ve been coachable,” he said.
“The kids have really made the most of it. I do think the loss of last season is very fresh in their mind, and every game, practice, opportunity to be together, I think they’ve taken the approach that we’re not going to take this for granted.”