Published July 9, 2021

MELROSE—It was a long year for everyone—especially for the members of the Class of 2021. Here in Melrose, students at Melrose High weren’t able to gather as a full student body until about March, and when major restrictions were lifted in May they were finally allowed to enjoy some normalcy, like Senior Week and a mask-free prom and graduation. Fortunately, all students were able to enjoy athletics at school—a slice of sanity during a dark fall and winter.

IT WOULDN’T be a normal sport season if the MHS volleyball team didn’t clinch another league title. (file photo)

It was a semi miracle that over 20 team sports were pulled off, thanks to the hard work of coaches, students, athletic director Steve Fogarty, the MHS administration and the Melrose School Committee, who may have been tempted to call it off. Thank God they didn’t. Melrose enjoyed an exceptional year of achievement with a total of eleven league titles clinched from boys and girls soccer, girls cross country, volleyball, football, cheer, boys lacrosse, girls indoor track, girls tennis, golf and boys hockey. 

Of course, with every moment of glory where were some speed bumps too. There is a lot to learn as we prepare for what should be a normal fall 2021 season.

Some thoughts, suggestions and kudos ahead.

1. The Fall 2 Season was genius.

It was a brilliant move by the MIAA to incorporate a Fall2 season into the 2021 academic year. Thanks to the hard work of administrators, athletic directors, principals and superintendents, the MIAA (in coordination with the DESE and EEA) forged to create an 8-week window for schools to play a sport that they were unable to get in during the fall or winter seasons (football, volleyball, Unified Basketball, swim, etc) Mother Nature did the rest, creating the most ideal conditions for football and “outdoor” indoor track to compete in. Melrose particularly benefited—three of their most successful programs—volleyball, football and girls track—played to undefeated seasons. The creation and outstanding success of Fall2 proved that high school sports can bend and not break, can adapt to unfamiliar environments (wrestling outside?) but mostly that student athletes and coaches will do anything to compete in the sport that they love. 

COVID-19 DIDN’T stop the returning Super Bowl champion Red Raiders from completing another undefeated season. (file photo)

2. We owe a debt of thanks to high school fall teams.

Early in the fall 2020 season one MHS coach predicted that the fate of winter and spring sports would likely rest on the outcome of the fall sport season. How totally right. There were concerns and fears: if someone touches a soccer ball with their hands, will they get COVID? Should parents be allowed in? What are the conditions in which a team should shut down? And, for how long? These fall teams played in a cloud of doubt but forged along to create incredibly successful seasons. All of Melrose High’s fall teams completed their seasons uninterrupted and never closed for COVID-19. They proved that even contact sports, when following guidelines, could be done while posing no risk to teammates and opposing players. Had they not played so successfully, there might not have been basketball and hockey seasons.

3. The MVP of the 2020-21 season: Melrose High TV.

Anthony DiBenedetto’s Melrose High TV simply hit it out of the park, providing over 80 live streams with 75 different volunteers for a total of 1173 volunteer hours during the school year. There were questions if it could be done, particularly in the fall with outside competition. But as winter approached, Melrose High TV was there, nary a glitch, even as other schools struggled to get the feed right. Whether it was watching Frank Capaldo and Brendan Fennell’s dynamic hoop play call (both could pursue this as a career) or Andrew Beauchesne’s play-by-by in volleyball and the super teams covering football, hockey and lacrosse, (too many to mention!) Melrose High TV rose to the occasion when fan restriction forced most parents and fans to watch at home. MHS even were able to live stream swim from the tight quarters of the Melrose YMCA pool. And it wasn’t just MHS High TV. MMTV also jumped in and helped cover sports too. Plus, David Roh and Dan Weissman, who were the saviors of the gymnastics season, live streaming from the Saugus YMCA. On that note: now that we know we can watch from our couches, we kind of like it. Let’s hope live streaming isn’t just a passing fancy. Please give Mr. D and his crew the resources they need to make this is a permanent fixture.

THANKS TO the hard work of fall teams like the league-champ MHS girls soccer squad, a winter season was possible for high school sports. (file photo)

4. The City of Melrose needs to think sport logistics.

Not all high school sports are created equal in terms of location and access. This experience revealed vulnerability from teams that need to “rent out” space like indoor track, gymnastics and swim. What options are there if colleges and universities or private gyms don’t want to rent space to high school teams in 2021-22? Additionally, Melrose’s dynasty volleyball program (a fall sport that practices in July and August) couldn’t enter the MHS gym until February. There are no volleyball courts in Melrose, and unlike basketball, they can’t just visit a local park and practice. Expanding access to practice time and venues or the creation of more outdoor playing surfaces should a priority for the city and school.

5. Never get rid of bus transportation again.

The Middlesex League opted not to offer bus transportation to their scholar athletes during their four MIAA sports seasons, and it was just a bad choice. While buses have returned for the tail end of spring playoffs, it was a problematic decision to begin with that put student athletes in a terrible position. Not for convenience sake, but safety. What spreads COVID-19 quicker? Masked high school athletes contained on a school bus with spaced out rows and open windows (supervised by a coach) or kids having to find their own transportation and jumping in friends’ cars? 

6. Keep the Middlesex League Tournaments.

Teams were faced with playing just their division opponents consecutively during their regular season. It made sense, for contact tracing purposes. Then, the Middlesex League gradually began adding cross league tournaments, starting with basketball and hockey. It was a breath of fresh air for teams who were getting a little burned out playing just their Freedom League opponents. The ML tourneys were wildly successful and should remain a staple. It’s a perfect culmination of a season, especially for teams who don’t qualify for a traditional post season. 

One gripe:

7. Show your reporters a little love. 

No one enjoyed having to be the fan attendance police, I’m sure. But, sport writers and media attended games as professionals, not fans. When COVID-19 made game viewing impossible, it was the press who kept parents and fans in the loop on social media and in print, especially in the case of no live-streaming. But frankly, it was like having to score a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket just to get into a gym or rink. Some athletic directors were more welcoming than others, but it was wildly inconsistent in the Middlesex League 12. A memorable greeting came at a road football game when this reporter was told at the gate, “Moms belong in the parent section” despite the visible press pass and camera. Fan restrictions made for tense times, but come on. 

Gripe aside, looking back at the athletic season of 2020-21 summons immense pride. Students, coaches, administrators and volunteers pulled off the impossible and there are many thanks to be given around. Students should thank their school administrators and the MIAA for pulling off an entire sport year. Those folks in turn, should thank students for playing by the rules, doing the right thing and pulling off something remarkable during a pandemic. As for next year? If contact sports like football and basketball can operate without outbreaks, then its time to return pep rallies, powder puff, drama productions, dances, holiday concerts, playoff games and field trips to our schools. Let’s give students lots to look forward to in the Fall of 2021.

Here’s to a healthy, safe and productive summer. And see you in September.

—Jennifer Gentile

Sports Editor