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By: Paige Britt, Senior, Gateway Regional High School, Woodbury Heights, NJ
WOODBURY HEIGHTS, N.J. — A brisk chill dances through the air. People huddle together on cold bleachers, hands wrapped around warm cups of hot chocolate. The lights illuminate the football field as players enter, causing cheers in the crowd from opposing schools. While this is typically the atmosphere of high school football games, things looked a little different this year.
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak in March of this year, the fall sports season changed things for all high school athletics.
Gateway Regional High School athletic director Mike DiCicco talked about the challenges faced by both students and coaches.
“A number of our programs were forced to shut down during the course of the season due to potential exposure to COVID, causing cancellations and schedule adjustments,” DiCicco said.
Gateway girls’ soccer coach Ariel Lee compared coaching last year to this fall.
“Coaching was different this year because I was much less ‘hands-on,’” Lee said. “I typically like to run with the girls, hop into drills, etc. This year I felt much more restricted in doing so. It was also tough not being able to read my players’ facial expressions. I feel like we are typically able to learn a great deal about each other’s feelings through their facial expressions, so it made verbal communication so much more important this year.”
Keith Abed, Gateway’s girls’ tennis coach, talked about the challenges the team faced due to a midseason COVID outbreak.
“I feel that it was very tough missing out on the County Tournament and having two weeks off in the middle of the season, but very fortunate we were able to finish the season,” Abed said.
Despite the difficulties, DiCicco noted the success the teams had this season.
“Our girls’ soccer team went on a nine game unbeaten streak through the end of the regular season following their shutdown,” DiCicco said. “The field hockey picked up right where they left off, finishing their regular season undefeated and winning a division championship. Girls’ tennis, despite missing the opportunity to defend their Gloucester County championship, went on to win their second consecutive South Jersey title.”
Lee delved deeper into the success of the girls’ soccer team’s season, complimenting the athletes on how dedicated they were.
“I feel that we had a very successful season, despite the circumstances,” Lee said. “My players were so compliant with wearing a mask and social distancing, and in doing so, we were able to complete the season. It was difficult being shut down for two weeks, but they attended zoom practices every day, and came back from quarantine without missing a beat.”
DiCicco described the safety precautions implemented by the school in order to protect athletes and coaches.
“Among these procedures included coaches were required to wear masks, bus capacities were reduced to ensure adequate distancing, and athletes were required to complete health questionnaires and had their temperatures taken daily. Student athletes wore masks whenever not participating in highly strenuous activities,” DiCicco said.
In addition to students and coaches, the safety of friends and family rooting for their teams had to be considered as well.
“Spectators were required to socially distance and wear masks, and spectator capacities were limited, and further reduced by the governor during the season, as COVID cases in the state increased,” DiCicco said.
With fall sports coming to an end, coaches have begun preparing for the upcoming winter season.
“The start of the winter sports season has already been delayed to January for basketball, February for swimming and winter track, and March for wrestling,” DiCicco said. “Each team will play an abbreviated schedule. The fact that the majority of the winter sports take place indoors will provide an additional challenge to completing the season. At this time, it is unlikely that any spectators will be permitted to attend winter athletic events.”
Lee explained that she does not coach a winter sport, but she is looking ahead to what the state of spring athletics will be.
“I hope that we will be able to play, similarly to the fall season, because everything is outdoors. Unfortunately, we lost our spring season last year, so I very much hope for the girls that we are able to play together this time around,” Lee said.
Abed has an optimistic view of the winter and spring seasons.
“I do coach a winter sport and I think by pushing back the start of the season it will increase the chance of us having a season. I do not see any issues happening in the spring season,” Abed commented.
Lee noted that despite the hardships of the season, the team remained positive and determined.
“I think that it really made all of us appreciate being out on the field each day. To me, coaching was the most ‘normal’ part of my day, and I feel that we all really embraced that,” Lee said. ”We also had 11 seniors this year, and they really stepped up and were there for the underclassmen, especially when we were quarantining.”
Students compared this fall to last year, talking about how the restrictions did not greatly affect the quality of the season.
Gateway senior and girls’ soccer co-captain Hannah Crowley expressed how grateful she was for her teammates — and to have a season at all.
“Being able to play senior high school soccer season this fall was truly a miracle. Besides the masks and new restrictions, it truly felt like any other season would. I accomplished a lot personally throughout the season and it felt really reassuring. I love all the girls and my coaches and I would do anything to start my high school soccer career over again,” Crowley said.
Gateway junior and junior varsity girls’ tennis player Sophia Lund talked about the COVID-19 restrictions the team faced this season.
“The team was split into two parts to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions, so the full team was rarely ever together. Also, when we played games, precautions had to be taken to avoid contact with people from other schools,” Lund stated.
Despite these changes, Lund says that the team was able to continue some traditions.
“I think that some normalcy was still maintained: music was still played on the bus and at practice, we still had a Senior Night, and we were still able to play against many different schools,” Lund said.
Gateway sophomore and JV field hockey player Selma Svitak said that the team was prepared for the worst, which only motivated them further.
“We pulled out a conference title for the first time in many years. COVID had an effect on this season but it wasn’t a big deal to us. We had been prepared for the two week break before it had happened. I feel like COVID had made us stronger as a team because we saw what we could lose and we just had to fight even harder to get what we wanted,” Svitak stated.
As for the winter season, students are not as optimistic, due to the start of the season being pushed back already, and the difficulties indoor athletics will bring.
Crowley weighed the possibilities for the winter season, saying that she would be disappointed if it were to be cancelled altogether.
“During the winter I participate in winter track to try and stay in shape for spring track. I have a feeling that the season might get cancelled all together,” stated Crowley. “If that’s not the case, then we will have to have our meets outside and I really would not prefer to pole vault in freezing weather. I feel like if that were the case, I would be more prone to injury. I would probably be bummed if it got cancelled.”
On the contrary, Lund commented that she believes the rest of the year will follow suit to the fall, with similar restrictions set in place.
“I expect that the sport seasons for the rest of the year will be similar to the fall. We will not be able to have as many people practice at the same time and there will be no team dinners. Additionally, the procedures for games and meets will be altered to comply with the COVID-19 guidelines,” Lund said.
Although games and practices functioned differently this year, students expressed that these setbacks only brought their teammates closer together.
Svitak described the team’s alternate methods of safely gathering.
“We went to Applebees 3 times for bonding because we could not do it at people’s homes. Team bonding this year was just overall great and I feel like we have bonded more than ever,” said Svitak.
Crowley mentioned the soccer teams similar ways of practicing team bonding, saying, “You could often find us sitting in a parking spot in the parking lot of Chick-fil-A or Panera Bread. We did that a few times every week.”
Crowley noted the importance of the athletic seasons to not only her high school career, but her overall mental health.
“I find it stress relieving to play these sports and I feel as though if both winter and spring were cancelled it may make my mental health decrease rapidly. Especially because it’s my senior year, I would be extra sad that I could not finish out all of my sports seasons along with other fun senior activities,” said Crowley.
DiCicco expressed that in spite of the hardships Gateway’s athletic department faced this fall, it was made worth it by the dedication of the students.
“Gateway’s fall athletic teams were extremely successful on the field, but what was always more important than wins and losses this fall was the ability for our student athletes to have the opportunity to compete in the sports that they love,” he said.
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