A year ago, the fields were quiet and the parking lots were empty. You could visit the newly-renovated softball field at Canton High School and hear the birds chirp. The sun was bright in the sky and warm but there was no need to bring out any equipment onto the turf field.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the nation, most of us were at home trying to safe and looking for scarce toilet paper and other paper products. Schools were closed. Students were attending classes online. Athletics at all levels were cancelled.
It may be a cliché but, boy, what a different a year makes.
Connecticut’s spring high school season began Saturday under sunny skies and a warmer-than-normal April afternoon and the excitement was infectious on the field, on the sideline and in the stands.
“I was just excited to get on the field, just like the kids,” said Simsbury High’s second-year baseball coach Niko Zimitti, who coached his fist varsity game against Enfield at Memorial Field in Simsbury. “I couldn’t sleep last night and I know they (kids) couldn’t sleep either.”
Simsbury High softball coach Jed Flaherty and his Trojans squared off against Canton on the field that was renovated prior to the 2020 season and included new dugouts for both teams.
“It felt like a win just stepping on the field,” Flaherty said. “It’s been so long. It felt really great and normal to be out here.”
Nothing is normal in the midst of a pandemic of an infectious disease that has swept across the world and continues to mutate and infect people with variants of the original virus.
But for a few hours on Saturday, the kids were together again with their teammates. Parents and friends were scattered in the stands watching the game. Nearly everyone wore a mask.
The athletes played with masks. The referees work masks and do the coaches on the sideline. Baseball and softball players bring their own helmets, bats and water bottles — no sharing allowed.
The umpire in the Simsbury and Canton softball game even barked quite loudly as the Simsbury players who swarmed out of the dugout after Rachel Juno scored a run on a three-base error. “You can’t do that anymore,” he said.
Juno had two hits and drove in two runs in Simsbury’s 9-5 season-opening win over Canton.
“It’s just so exciting to be back,” she said. “The energy has been there since day 1 (of practice on March 28) and we’re so excited to actually start the season outside. In the past, we started practice in the gym at school.”
As most of us know who have lived in New England for a while, it is usually pretty chilly in late March and early April. But it’s been nice outside for the past few weeks. Temperatures were in the low 70s on Saturday in Canton and in Simsbury.
“Everybody – coaches and players – are just happy to be out doing something they love to do that isn’t affected by COVID,” Canton softball coach Kristin Benjamin said. “Everyone is excited to get back out there.”
The Canton boys lacrosse team opened the season with an 8-1 win over Watertown on the turf field – just the second opening day victory in the team’s 10-year history.
“This was two years in the making,” Canton High boys lacrosse coach Craig Weller said. “We wanted this after not having a season last year. We are very excited how these kids performed. They’re enjoying each other’s company. They’re enjoying just being out here playing lacrosse after not having anything last spring.”
The Warriors were one of six boys lacrosse games that kicked off the season with 10 a.m. start times. Just being able to play together brought a smile to Weller’s face. To be one of the first games of the year was a nice touch, too, he said.
At Memorial Field in Simsbury, there was a food truck parked near field 5 or the home of the Simsbury High baseball team. Fans were scattered throughout the stands cheering on the first high school baseball game in town in nearly two years since June 2019.
The hometown fans roared when Ryan Laubscher hit a grand slam with two outs in the bottom of the fifth inning to give Simsbury a short-lived one-run lead, 5-4. Visiting Enfield scored a pair of runs with two outs in the sixth inning to secure a 5-4 victory.
The Trojans were disappointed with the loss but it was more than just a game.
“The drive over (to the field) was emotional, the dugout was emotional,” Laubascher said. “It just means a lot to have a game here and be as close as it was.
“It means a lot to all of us, the town. There was a lot of people showing up today. It’s been a long time coming for us.”
It was a great day in Connecticut.