After a pandemic year without an Upper School sports program, students and coaches were thrilled to take the fields again starting March 29 as intramural spring-season practices for lacrosse, baseball, softball, and track and field began. “The vibe has been incredibly positive,” says Athletic Director Nancy McNall. “The opportunity for the kids to be outdoors, connecting through athletics, has been glorious.”
McNall had been eager to restart an Upper School sports program ever since the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down all competition in spring 2020. While McNall and fellow physical education teachers Mike Pannozzi and Lynn Pisanelli were able to provide students with remote workouts and practice videos that spring and, when school reopened in the fall, relatively normal physical education classes for the Lower School, a return to Upper School sports remained out of reach. High rates of COVID-19 transmission in the region made close competitive play too risky.
In the spring, however, with coronavirus numbers dropping and plenty of evidence from the fall to suggest that Shore’s safety measures were effective, it became possible to consider a restart. Families and students were all for it, says McNall. “One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about working at Shore is that the students and families are so supportive of the athletic program. Everyone was ready to get back out there.”
The first step toward a spring season was devising safety protocols that would continue protecting children from COVID-19 even while competing. That meant dropping interscholastic play and travel in favor of scrimmages among Shore teams only, and it also meant closing locker rooms, requiring masks, and keeping players as physically distanced as possible while on the sidelines.
Step two was finding willing coaches among Shore’s faculty and staff. Explains McNall, “Because we depend on our teachers to coach our kids, I wasn’t sure we’d even have a coaching roster for this spring given the added stress our teachers were already facing because of the coronavirus.” But the response was overwhelming, says McNall. “I couldn’t believe that almost all of the coaches said yes. They knew sports would be great for their students, and they couldn’t wait to get out on the fields alongside them. To see that selflessness in our teachers—despite the ways the season would look different, and despite the challenges—was amazing and gratifying. The season wouldn’t have happened without their willingness to step up.”
Now, with Upper School sports running daily, McNall says she couldn’t be happier about how the restart has gone. “Our kids have been so good about following the COVID-19 safety rules. The worst thing that happens is that a mask might snap and break. That’s the reason we have replacements in our medical kits.” More importantly, sports have brought back something that’s been missing from Shore during an unprecedented year—a way for students to build connections across peer groups and grades. “What we’re really doing is going back to what we used to have at Shore—a robust intramural program on campus that’s very spirited. We’ve got all grades playing together on the same field, so they can compete against one another or practice separately, whatever the situation calls for.”
McNall is planning other ways to make the spring season feel special. One day a week, there will be “Blue and White Game Days,” when students will be divided into blue and white squads in honor of Shore’s colors. Then they’ll compete against each other to earn points for their color and try for the championship at the end of the season.
Regardless of any prizes that may be won, McNall sees big rewards for all Upper Schoolers in the afterschool sports program. “It’s great for the eighth and ninth graders who are leaving Shore to have one last season on the fields after missing last spring, fall, and winter. For our sixth graders, it’s their very first chance to be involved in spring sports. This will propel them into next year and give them a sense of what the program is all about. It’s especially important for our seventh graders, who will be the leaders on our teams next year. This spring will surely give them a little bit of confidence as they head into next year.”
At this point, says McNall, Shore is planning to run the full afterschool sports program next fall, when the hope is that COVID-19 will have receded enough into the background to allow a return to something close to normal. But for now, intramural practices and scrimmages help to give everyone the sense that normal is within reach. “Being out on the fields, I feel we’re right where we should be as a school,” McNall says. “If anything, this past year has made me appreciate even more how important sports are to our program, and how much I love what I do.”