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Sports Desk: As life remained far from normal, sports lifted spirits in 2021

For all the historic trauma the world has been through with the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 represented hope. Hope that things will get better. Hope that life would move a bit closer to normal. Hope that it would bring a return of the people and the things we love.

That included sports.

Sure, sports and games are not necessities of life like food, water and oxygen, but they are important. They are valuable ingredients to the human spirit.

That has been one of the lessons learned from the deadly hold this coronavirus has taken on the world. Sports can lift people’s spirits, and after 2020, spirits needed lifting.

Fans returned to arenas and stadiums. After Long Island public schools took the fall off (all schools missed the 2020 spring season with the COVID-19 outbreak seemingly bringing the world to a standstill), high school sports returned in January. Like a wary bather at first cautiously dipping a toe into a hot tub, it began with so-called low- and moderate-risk high school winter sports, ending over nine months of athletic inactivity. Some doubted it would happen so fast, but recognized its importance to the athletes, as much for their mental health as their physical fitness.

Things were still far from normal. The word “strange” kept coming to mind.

The three high school sports seasons were compressed into about eight weeks each in the first half of 2021. Suffolk County athletic directors voted to prohibit spectators at practices and events during the winter season. Athletes competed — and still do — while wearing face coverings. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association canceled all winter and fall state championships. Winter track, normally an indoor sport, was run outdoors — dual meets only.


“I did not believe that it was going to happen,” said Olivia Stowell of the Shoreham-Wading River girls winter track team.

And then came a big thumbs up from the NYSPHSAA when it gave its approval for high-risk sports that had been postponed indefinitely to begin practice and competition on Feb. 1.

“From a parent perspective, this is great news,” NYSPHSAA executive director Dr. Robert Zayas said during a Zoom news conference. “From an executive director of the state high school athletic association perspective, this is great news, but it’s phenomenal news for our student-athletes.”

Anxious high-risk winter sports athletes, eager to salvage something of their 2021 high school seasons, had waited and waited for their first day — and then a snowstorm delayed their start some more. So 2020.

“It’s uncharted territory,” SWR wrestling coach Joe Condon said, adding: “It’s like nothing we ever had.”

As part of the strangeness, we saw a compact “fall” sports season played in the months of March and April. For the first time in 12 months, spectators were permitted to attend high school sporting events — on a limited basis. A brief preseason was followed by congested game schedules. Health protocols included weekly COVID-19 testing for athletes in high-risk sports such as football and volleyball, face coverings and social distancing.

Riverhead took what was essentially a double hit from the pandemic and school budget defeats at the polls. Because of cutbacks, the Blue Waves did not field teams this past winter or participate in the “fall” season that was moved to this past spring. Riverhead teams did compete this past spring sports season, though.

Shortened seasons aside, there were smiles behind those face masks. Athletes who may have all but written off their chances of having a season were overjoyed.

The first day of spring practice marked Riverhead sports returning to action for the first time in 410 days. “In a weird way, it feels like Christmas,” said Mackenzie Dorr, a goalie for the girls lacrosse team.

This fall the high school seasons returned to their normal lengths.

Pandemic aside, 2021 left us with memories: SWR high jumper Blake Wehr became an All-American for the second time in three years; Riverhead Raceway bid farewell to one of its co-owners, Eddie Partridge, who died at the age of 68 after experiencing a “medical episode”; Riverhead returned to football this fall for the first time since 2019 and despite one adversity after another reached the playoffs; Pat Kelly stepped down after 33 years as WRIV’s play-by-play announcer; SWR’s football team won its fourth straight county championship and seventh in eight seasons before falling to North Shore in the Long Island Class IV final.

Memorable stuff from a crazy year.

Dorr said she has learned something from the pandemic. “Never take anything for granted,” she said. “I always took for granted like being at school with friends, practicing. You miss it all.”