Not quite the same

This past season’s Battle of the Birds basketball games had a scaled-down flavor — coaches and a limited number of spectators wearing masks, with socially distanced benches and the crowd sequestered on the second level and opposite side of the gym away from the teams. While everyone hopes it’s a scenario that will never be repeated, sports editor Kal Oakes says it was vital for the games to go on.

Somehow, we pulled it off.

The high school sports season many of us surely feared would never happen, then perspired bullets about the wisdom and logistics of it all, is in Kentucky’s copious history book.

KHSAA baseball and softball championships concluded this past weekend. My summer slowdown started eight days earlier when the final starter’s pistol of the state track and field went off.

It was paradoxically the longest and shortest year of my 40-or-so in the business as a participant, spectator and journalist.

Every day was a nerve-racking exercise of trying to execute the normal while awaiting the drop of the proverbial shoe that would stomp those plans to smithereens. Texts from coaches or administrators typically were tips about canceled games or quarantined teams.

Those were best-case scenarios. We spent months in limbo, never more than one e-mail or press conference away from seeing it all shut down indefinitely.

And if I spent all that time perpetually stressed, worried about what lurked around the bend, I can only imagine how it was for the student athletes. It’s not a state of being they or I can easily and adequately put into words.

Our public health experts expressed grave concern about “vulnerable populations” during the peaks of the pandemic, and rightfully so. I am not in any position to quibble with state and national decisions to err on the side of abundant caution. COVID-19 was a very real scourge that ended and altered lives.

As a sports apologist with a psychology degree, I also make no apologies for being sick inside about the collateral damage — harder to quantify, and not as immediately visible to the naked eye — that fell upon our kids.

Teenagers are an inherently vulnerable lot. Mind and body are still growing. Self-confidence is fleeting, often masked by bravado. They have an urgent, ongoing need for physical activity and social stimulation. And too many lack the proper support system to compensate when any of those areas are out of balance.

What is “essential” suddenly became a bone of contention while we grappled with this unwelcome visitor in our midst. 

As we make this measured return to whatever is normal, my conviction is only emboldened. Sports are vital to and inseparable from the educational process. If you tell me they are overemphasized, I will gladly argue that we do not celebrate them enough.

Having seen those childhood games so easily pushed aside the past 15 months makes me even more grateful to live and work in a community that affords them a place of honor.

Our best days are ahead of us, by the way. I know that is counterintuitive to the power and might, perhaps even entitlement we felt for a couple of decades as home to the commonwealth’s largest, consolidated, public high school. But this city of champions will see its share of new ones added to local lore before we know it.

Certainly the lockdowns didn’t happen with exquisite timing at the junction of years one and two in our new reality with legacy (Scott County) and upstart (Great Crossing) athletic programs to build.

A spring season was lost. A summer’s workouts were shelved. Fall and winter sports were start-and-stop shadows of their usual selves, with a cold, dark December tucked in between,

The on-again, off-again shuttle between in-person and virtual lessons was not ideal for cultivating new traditions, building community, or fostering school pride. In this era of branding and rebranding, Great Crossing and Scott County needed the mundane more than most.

In many respects, as we enter year three, it almost feels like year one all over again. Lord willing, it will be a traditional one that follows a conventional calendar, one that finally gives the Cardinals and Warhawks an opportunity to spread their wings from start to finish.

Last summer, the KHSAA’s traditional “dead period,” essentially shelved due to the embargo on organized activity that prevailed for months on end, never sounded so foreboding.

This year’s 15-day hands-off period, beginning next weekend and continuing through the week after Independence Day, is a traditional opportunity to catch our breath before we hit the ground running back to normalcy.

I can’t wait to see what our two high schools accomplish on the fields, courts, tracks and trails in the new year. Through all the ups and downs of the past two years, we have more young men and women wearing a high school uniform and chasing those dreams than at any previous time.

Countless wins and trophies assuredly will result. More important are the memories made, and most crucial are the physical and mental health and sense of self-efficacy built.

Sports are about to return in all their glory and fullness. They are a source of comfort and civic pride. They are integral to our growth as a community.

Make no mistake: They are essential, in every sense of the word.

Kal Oakes can be reached via email at sports@news-graphic.com.

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