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Sidelines: Sports in 2021 returned to form after year of cancellations and change

Written by corres2

Cony wide receiver Derek Totten, left, catches a pass in front of Lawrence defensive back Cade Scott during a Class B North semifinal football game Friday in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

I was trying to think of the best way to sum up the year in sports, and kept coming up empty.

And then it hit me: Start with the fact that there was a year in sports.

While the pandemic that arrived in 2020 refused to go away in 2021, sports in central Maine took a big step towards normalcy over the course of these past 365 days. In 2020, there was a whole season without any games, practices or competition. In 2021, all three seasons were in action. Last year didn’t see any playoff games played after the coronavirus arrived. This year, playoffs returned at the end of two of the three seasons, the spring and fall. And you know what the song says about two out of three.

So while sports continued to look different than we’re used to — witness, for example, the half-full gyms and arenas and masks still being worn by most indoor athletes right now — it was impossible to ignore just how more right they felt in 2021 compared to the year before.

There was probably nowhere this was true more than on the football field. After everything was axed and shelved in 2020, football returned in 2021, and with it came the dramatic weekend contests that again captivated communities, drew enthusiastic crowds and reminded us what we had missed the previous season.

Friday night lights were a thing again. Athletes who build their whole year towards the fall had a season to play again. And even though it wasn’t easy — COVID cases popped up everywhere and canceled games left and right — the sport that was toppled by the virus last year prevailed through it this time.

Rivaling football for the award for Comeback Sport of the Year, though, was wrestling, which went from crippled by the pandemic to back in full force, even as wrestlers dealt with wearing masks during competition. That part was unusual; the rest wasn’t, from the teams that flocked to Bath Middle School for the first meet of the season, to the buzz in the gym generated by the return of a sport kept in mothballs for two whole years. The wrestlers were excited to be back. The coaches were excited. And it showed.

We got to see playoffs and championships again, and athletes got to play for the same goals all the ones before them had. It was a year of adjusted expectations and objectives in 2020, with players conditioning themselves to play for bragging rights and the straightforward joy of being able to be on the field. “Hey, we’re just happy we get to play” was the rallying cry of nearly every athlete in the fall and the following winter.

There were three mats of action during the Westlake Tournament on December 4 in Bath. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

But in 2021, Gold Balls came back. Races for tournament seeding came back. Games mattered again, just as they had before everything went to hell. Great teams got to earn the trophies that made their talents official and their accomplishments a part of history. Skowhegan softball won a state title. Hall-Dale softball won one. So did Waterville and Hall-Dale girls tennis, and Cony girls track and field, and Maranacook girls soccer and Winthrop field hockey. When those players held up their trophies after earning the final victory, COVID seemed to be a million miles away.

Even when the normal postseason wasn’t in play, 2021 showed us creativity and ingenuity. It showed us Winthrop athletic director Joel Stoneton working to set up a Central Maine Tournament that gave area basketball teams a tournament atmosphere to play for. It wasn’t the same, but it was something. And it was important. Find video of Mr. Maine Basketball winner Cash McClure screaming at the ceiling after hitting another dagger in one of those games, or the Gardiner girls basketball team celebrating after rallying to beat Lawrence, and try telling yourself it wasn’t important.

That’s what I think of when I think about the 2021 season. I think about how often sports felt like sports again. How often we were treated to the same drama, the same theatrics, the same triumphs we had become accustomed to seeing until the pandemic tried to take it all away.

I think about moments like Emily Lucas of the Maranacook girls tennis team rallying to play a four-hour match in a playoff showdown with Waynflete, knowing her team needed her to win in order to move on.

I think about the Lawrence football team, trying desperately to force overtime against Windham in the Class B North final, somehow holding on the goal line to give itself a chance.

I think about Maddie Perkins scoring a game-winning goal for the Winthrop field hockey team with just over a minute to go in the Class C final, less than two minutes after the Ramblers lost the lead.

I think about the Cony football team, down to third-string quarterback Dom Napolitano, somehow beating Lawrence 28-14 in its first game on its new field.

I remember watching each of those moments take place, and thinking each time “Man. This has really been something.”

In 2021, it was fun to think that once again.

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