Looking on back on the strange fall sports season of 2020

  • Pembroke’s Hannah Brown and Merrimack Valley’s Juliana Palhof compete for the ball during the D-II girls’ soccer semifinal in Pembroke on Nov. 5. MV won, 2-1, to qualify for the program’s first title game, but a positive COVID case at MV forced them to forfeit the final. ALLIE ST PETER / Monitor staff

  • Hopkinton’s Ashlee Brehio (center) celebrates with her teammates after scoring one of her three goals during the second half of the Division III girls’ soccer championship at Campbell High School in Litchfield on Nov. 5. Hopkinton won, 4-1, to claim its third straight D-III title and complete its full season during a fall when some teams weren’t so lucky. JEFF SULLIVAN / sullivaneventphotography.com

  • Coe Brown’s Aidan Cox won the Meet of Champions on Nov. 7 with a state record time of 14:58.8, leading the Bears to the team title. BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Bow running back Andrew Bliss is tackled by Lebanon’s Jackson Stone in the end zone for a safety during the D-II playoffs in Bow. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The Bishop Brady field hockey team reacts to its tying goal to force overtime in its D-III semifinal at Mascoma on Oct. 29. Jennifer Hauck / Valley News

Monitor staff
Published: 11/14/2020 5:18:31 PM

They made it through more than two months of high school soccer without a trace of COVID. More than that, the girls on the Merrimack Valley team pushed their program to its first ever championship game.

Then, two days before the Pride was scheduled to host that historic Division II girls’ soccer final, it was taken away. There was a positive case of COVID in the school, and the team had to forfeit the championship to Milford.

“They’re devastated,” MV coach Nick D’Agostino said of his players. “They’re having a hard time with it.”

That was the unfortunate reality during the bizarre 2020 fall high school sports season. Some teams made it through entire seasons, others were cut short, and no one knew when or where those cuts were coming.

Merrimack Valley beat rival Pembroke Academy, 2-1, on Nov. 5 in the D-II semifinals, paving the way for the team’s championship debut. After the game, D’Agostino said, “We never talked about making it to the finals, we were just happy to play for as long as we could this season. There were teams dropping out and we knew that could be us.”

The next day, it was them.

The school released news of the positive test result and championship forfeit on Nov. 6 and word quickly spread.

“I was just really disappointed for the girls because they worked so hard,” D’Agostino said. “And it was a really bright spot for our community after a lot of disappointing and sad things that have happened in the last six months or so in the community. So, it was really tough for the girls and the school and the community.”

MV wasn’t the only team to win a semifinal this fall but never make it to the final. The Berlin field hockey team beat Gilford in the Division III semifinals in Berlin on Oct. 28, but after the game the school announced there were coronavirus concerns in the district and the field hockey team would have to forfeit the final. The New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association immediately contacted people at the other semifinal, which was still going on in West Canaan between Mascoma and Bishop Brady, to let them know they were actually playing the final.

“It was crazy. My coach called me over with like five minutes left in the fourth quarter and she’s like, ‘This is the championship game,’ ” Bishop Brady senior Ashlyn Toupin said. “I thought she was just trying to tell me to play like it was the championship game, but she was being dead serious.”

What’s even crazier is that Toupin then scored with no time left on the clock to send the game into overtime, where Brady won its second straight state championship after claiming the first in program history last year.

“This one feels totally different. I mean, to find out like we did, this was surreal,” Brady coach Kelly Owen said. “But every day this season we gave thanks for the opportunity to play, so we’re just grateful we got to finish the season like we did.”

Other schools and teams lost games and seasons to coronavirus. Bow High had to cancel soccer, football and field hockey games in the middle of the season after positive COVID tests in the school, and Lebanon had to forfeit its D-II semifinal football game after beating Bow in the quarterfinals because of another COVID outbreak in Bow. The Hillsboro-Deering girls’ soccer team had to forfeit its playoff game, Pinkerton Academy in Derry canceled all of its fall sports and the Newmarket soccer teams forfeited their playoff games after opponents refused to wear masks when playing against them.

There are more examples of teams that didn’t get to play full seasons, and the football championships are scheduled for next weekend, but the reality is most teams and seasons did get to finish. Despite the multiple outbreaks in Bow, the Falcons golf team had a healthy enough window to win the D-III title. All three golf division team championships went off smoothly on Oct. 21 and all three divisions completed the individual portion of the tournaments, as well.

“The athletic directors deserve a ton of credit for how much time and effort they put into getting things up and running in their schools this fall. The kids, by and large, have been awesome, too,” NHIAA executive director Jeff Collins said at the D-III golf championships back in October. “It’s been hard, but it’s all been worth it when you get out here and see kids have a chance to compete for a state championship. Or, to be honest, it was great just to see a regular-season game and kids getting a chance to play their sport and go out there and compete.”

The cross country division championships took all day because of staggered starts to create social distance, but they also all finished with local teams dominating the day – Concord High took the boys’ and girls’ titles in D-I, Coe-Brown swept in D-II and the Hopkinton girls won in D-III. A week later, Coe-Brown sophomore Aidan Cox set a state record at the Meet of Champions and his sister, Addison Cox, won the girls’ individual title to complete an incredible rebound from a hard bout with Lyme Disease last year.

The last fall high school game featuring a local team was the D-III girls’ soccer final last Sunday, the same day MV was supposed to be playing in its final. The Hopkinton girls’ team won the D-III championship, 4-1 against Campbell, making it three straight titles for the Hawks.

“I was really surprised that we were able to keep going and finish the  season,” Hopkinton junior captain Annie Higginbotham said after the game. “I mean, D-II didn’t even get to play a final and then for D-III field hockey, they didn’t play either. So, being able to make it this far is pretty awesome because the season was kind of nerve-wracking.”

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