I had a conversation with a girls soccer coach late in September, a few days before the FCIAC regular season started. We were discussing the abbreviated and regionalized schedule, the inability to play more than half the schools in the league and speculated what the two games that were being termed a playoff experience would be like.
It’s not going to be like a real playoff, the coach said. It is really just two more games.
That sentiment was echoed a few more times during early games, and it was reasonable to see why. This was a season unlike any other, and there was no guidebook to follow. As we moved deeper into October, more teams were forced to postpone and cancel games because of Covid breakouts and the need to quarantine.
Teams began the season with the same mindset: win every game we play. Finish 12-0. But soon it became evident that getting all 12 games in was unlikely, and that there was no guarantee of a next game.
As the calendar flipped to November, completing the schedule became a race against time. Schools were forced to shift from hybrid to remote learning, and it was a sprint to the finish line. Most sports but not all were able to complete their playoffs.
But those playoffs that we thought would be pyrrhic in nature turned out to be anything but. In almost every instance the intensity was no different than what you would see in a conventional season.
That was apparent from the outset of the first playoff game I attended, with the Staples boys soccer team hosting Brien McMahon. It was one of the more physical games I have seen any time, not just this fall. The physicality verged crossing the line.
But the schedule said this was a playoff game, not a pandemic playoff. After months of being denied any sense of normalcy, the players and coaches were not going to water down this quest to win a championship. For seniors, careers were on the line.
Again I turn to the Central Region boys soccer playoffs, which were played with just four teams because Danbury and Norwalk were forced to quarantine and pull out of play. McMahon defeated Staples and went on to face Wilton for the title.
The Warriors were unbeaten and may have been the most impressive boys soccer team during the regular season, but McMahon was able to play them to a scoreless tie and co-championship.
The Senators last won a league title in 1986, and the fact that there were four teams involved in the playoffs or that they played to a draw was not going to diminish their accomplishment. Rodrigo Guzman, a former McMahon player, made sure his players appreciated the moment as they posed for photos in front of the north goal.
In contrast, the Wilton players reacted as if they had lost. There were no asterisks to this final and they were bent on an outright title, a year after making it to the state final coming off a five-win season.
The Ridgefield-Staples girls soccer rivalry has become one of the best in the FCIAC, and after playing to a couple of ties there was much anticipation for their regional title game. The teams had met in the state final both in 2017-18, and this last contest of the season would surely be met with the same urgency.
When the game had to be cancelled due to a Covid breakout, the players from both teams were heartbroken. Both sides would have risked defeat over not competing at all.
And really, that was the overriding sentiment that came out of the fall sports season: the appreciation at having the chance to compete. In terms of a schedule, it may have been the greatest imperfection of all time. Players and coaches had to ride a rollercoaster from one game to the next, and sometimes they were derailed.
The one constant at every game was the expressed gratefulness the players had for having any kind of season. Many of them were spring athletes who already lost part of their high school careers. All saw the efforts being made to get any kind of football off the ground.
After her team defeated four-time defending state champion Staples to win the regional field hockey title, Ridgefield coach Jessica Smith said, “We knew two hours a day we had field hockey, we had each other and we’d come together and that was the highlight of our day.”
That view was shared from every pitch, field, court and pool this fall.
On the way to an unbeaten season that may have ended that way even in a normal year, Lilly Saleeby, one of the stars of the Greenwich volleyball team, following a hard-fought win over New Canaan, told me, “We’re just happy to have the chance to be in the gym every day.”
Which is the reason every winter sport athlete and coach is now checking the state health metrics on an hourly basis.