As high school sports seasons progress, the Independent will be reporting regularly on how the pandemic is affecting the games, players, coaches, and fans.
PROVINCETOWN — “I thought it would be over by now.”
That’s what Anthony Lovati said about the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on high school sports. Lovati, who lives in Provincetown, is a senior captain on the Nauset Regional High School boys soccer team. Like all the other seniors participating in fall sports, Lovati faces a different game from the one he envisioned at the beginning of his high school career.
Practice normally starts in August, and teams gear up with a preseason tournament. This year, though, the soccer season will go from Sept. 21 to Nov. 20. Teams will play just 8 to 10 games (a normal season would have about 20), with a league tournament at the end of the regular season, but no statewide soccer playoffs to look forward to.
New rules for this fall include required face coverings during practices and games while maintaining six feet of distance from each other. But other guidelines issued by the Mass. Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) will change the game in many more ways. The regulations prohibit heading the ball, throw-ins after the ball goes out of bounds, slide tackles, intentional body contact between players, and goal kicks through the air.
The full document of modifications for soccer alone is seven pages long. Violation of these new rules will result in an indirect kick for the opposing team, or yellow/red cards for the offenders, according to the MIAA.
“I think it’s going to be really hard,” Lovati said. “I’m going to have to do a lot of homework on what I can and can’t do.”
“With the new rules, it will be very tricky and definitely a game changer,” said junior Isabel Cook of Wellfleet, captain of the Nauset girls soccer team.
Playing defense will be difficult, since intentional contact is not allowed. As a defender, it’s tough to take the ball away from another player without making any body contact.
“I play physical,” said Cook. “It will be very hard to adjust with no contact, since I’ve used it in the way I’ve played for the last 10 years.”
Lovati agreed that physicality is a strong suit at Nauset and has helped the boys team win Division 2 state championships in two of the last four years (2016-17, 2018-19). They were state playoff contenders in the other two years.
“Contact, for my team, is a big part of the game,” Lovati said, adding that Nauset players are bigger than most of those they play against. “Coach has us in the weight room all year,” he said.
The new rules prohibiting heading and throw-ins will be especially challenging. Cook said she scored four goals last year, and three of them came from heading the ball into the net. Lovati said he’s known for his throw-ins from the sideline, which he can toss a good distance.
“Throwing the ball in is something I’m really good at. I can throw it in like a cross,” he said, referring to a pass from the side to midfield. “I think we scored 5 or 6 goals last year off that one play.”
Now players must kick the ball on the ground after an out of bounds. During a free kick, defensive players have traditionally lined up in a wall formation to block the shooter from having a clear look at the goal. But social distancing guidelines mean those walls will not be allowed.
Then there’s breathing.
“It’s definitely hard,” Lovati said of wearing a mask during play. Since Nauset practices won’t start until Sept. 21, he said the team has held some captain’s practices to try and get used to the new rules and the masks. One of those sessions happened in the rain. “When the masks get wet you can’t really breathe,” he said.
Cook said she, too, set up practices with her team this summer at the middle school. “They were usually passing drills, shooting, and no contact, to make sure we were as socially distanced as we could be,” she said.
Face coverings, though necessary, present a challenge, she agreed.
“I know we can do it and make it work since we all care about each other’s well-being,” Cook said. “Although, it is really difficult, because when you’ve been running your breathing becomes heavy and the mask makes it feel like you’re suffocating.”
Mask breaks will be allowed during games when players can maintain 10 feet of separation, according to the MIAA. These won’t be at planned intervals, but at opportune moments. For example, defensive players will likely pull their masks down for a breather when the offense is pushing the ball on the other side of the field. Instead of two 40-minute halves, games will be played in four 20-minute quarters this season — with more opportunities for players to take masks off and get water.
Nauset has had some talented soccer teams in recent years, with a number of graduates going on to play in college. But college recruiting has also changed. “A lot of these players do want to play at the next level in college and it’s been difficult to get them out in front of college coaches,” said John McCully, the Nauset boys soccer head coach.
Exposure is important in recruiting, and there won’t be a lot of it in this short season. But that will be true for players across the state, since it was the MIAA Covid-19 task force’s unanimous recommendation against postseason play that put a stop to playoffs this year.
“We’re just trying to stay positive and upbeat,” McCully said. “This is a special group of seniors. I just want the most for them.”
It’s unclear whether students or family will be allowed to sit in the bleachers during Warriors games and maintain the required distance, though there is space to stand and cheer around the field. Either way, Lovati said, he expects the student section to be less uproarious this season.
“We are grateful they have some sort of season,” said Anthony’s mother, Liz Lovati. “But we’ve invested a lot of time, money, driving for 10 years to all different parts of this state for tournaments, games, and club practices.
“You wait for the culmination of senior year,” Liz continued. “Now I’m not going to see him win a championship.”
The players remain optimistic.
“I thought everyone on the team would take it a lot harder,” Anthony said, “but we’ve all kind of just taken it, and know this is what we got to do.”
“I know, as a team, we can face the adversity thrown our way,” Cook said. “We’ll need to lift each other up and help each other learn the new way of playing.”