Concord-area high schools agree to mask up for spring sports season

  • Concord High School senior, Kristin Womack, during tennis practice on Thursday at Memorial Field in Concord. MELISSA CURRAN / Monitor staff

  • Shannon Tyrell and Stephanie Oberg of Concord High School throw during track practice at Memorial Field in Concord on Tuesday. MELISSA CURRAN / Monitor staff

  • Concord High School senior, Joanna Dustin, during tennis practice on Thursday at Memorial Field in Concord. MELISSA CURRAN / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/9/2021 4:38:08 PM

After some scheduled delays and with familiar safety regulations in place, local high school sports teams are practicing and preparing for a spring season, which begins as soon as Monday for some programs.

Almost all athletes will be wearing masks this spring – from tennis to track to baseball – which has already caused a wrinkle among some coaches.

Like they did in the winter and fall, and like other schools are doing across the state, several area athletic programs have joined together to form a cohort – Bow, Bishop Brady, Coe-Brown, Hillsboro-Deering, Hopkinton, John Stark, Kearsarge, Merrimack Valley and Pembroke Academy.

“The cohort has two main goals this year – keep athletes and coaches safe and give athletes an opportunity to play,” John Stark athletic director Mark Searles said. “I feel our cohort has been very successful in achieving both of those goals in the fall and winter season and anticipate the same this spring. Our success has come from all of us working together and supporting each other throughout the year.”

Concord High was loosely attached to the cohort in the fall and winter with most CHS teams playing a game or two against other cohort teams, even though Concord is a Division I school and the other schools are all smaller and classified as D-II or D-III by the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association. This spring, however, Concord teams are playing a full D-I schedule and, with the exception of track & field, will not be competing against the local cohort.

The NHIAA delayed the start of the 2021 spring season for all divisions by one week, pushing back the first date to practice to March 29 and the first date to play to April 12. The local cohort went a step further and didn’t begin practices until April 5, and almost all of those teams will start playing games the week of April 19.

“We pushed it back because we were concerned about our fields being ready in time, and if they weren’t we’d have a multitude of kids running around inside the building, and how would we control that?” Merrimack Valley athletic director Kevin O’Brien said. “So, when we talked about it with our cohort, we decided losing a week wouldn’t make that much difference, so we came up with a six-week, 12-game schedule.”

Concord High teams began practicing on March 29 and will start playing games on Monday. While the weather cooperated and most of those early practices were held outdoors, Concord athletic director Steve Mello and his staff used the same winter sports safety guidelines to organize any spring practices that had to take place indoors.

The local cohort’s delayed start means shorter regular-season schedules for most teams, but that won’t matter when it comes to qualifying for postseason tournaments. Like they were in the fall and winter, the NHIAA spring playoffs will be open to any team that wants to participate. Seedings, and home field advantage, will once again be determined by a random draw.

The local cohort and Concord High are on the same page when it comes to student-athletes and coaches wearing masks – they will all do so at all practices and games. The only exceptions will be in track and field for hurdles, pole vault, shot put, discus and javelin. Wearing a face covering while participating in those events could be a safety hazard, although some athletes in those events are still wearing them.

Bradley Keyes refused to have any of his Pembroke Academy track athletes wear masks, a stance that cost him his job as the high school’s head track and field coach. There were other dissenting opinions in the cohort, but none were as loud or public as Keyes, and in the end, everyone else agreed to go along with the rules.

“We’ve been very successful in our cohort. We’ve had about the least amount of problems as any cohort in the state,” O’Brien said. “Some of it might be luck, and some of it might be the regulations we decided to put in place.”

Kearsarge Regional High was in a different cohort for the fall season, but had a difficult time convincing other schools to adhere to the stringent face-covering and fan policies that the Kearsarge School District was requiring. The Cougars found more like-minded schools in the Capital-area cohort, so they joined that group this winter and came back for the spring.

“It’s a good group of ADs, a good group of schools and we thought it worked out well,” Kearsarge athletic director Scott Fitzgerald said. “What was great was the consistency within the group. That makes it just much more efficient to manage when everyone is on the same page and everyone is trying to do the same thing, which is provide safe opportunities for the kids.”

Kearsarge will stay on the conservative side of things this spring when it comes to fans at games in North Sutton. The Cougars are only allowing home fans who live in the same household as student-athletes at Kearsarge games, although that could change if the coronavirus situation in the state changes. Concord High is following the same policy for games on its grounds – only allowing home fans who live in the same household as student-athletes, at least to start the season.

The other local schools are following the same spectator rules they had in the fall – any fan can attend a game, but all are required to wear a mask and stay socially distant (6 feet) from non-household members.

“Everyone understands that we’re all going to look a little different in terms of how many buses are available, or when you can leave the school for away games, or what the facilities look like, or how many fans can be there,” Fitzgerald said. “But the bottom line is everybody is willing to do whatever it takes to put games together and give the opportunities to kids.”

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