Danny Murphy, head coach of the St. Paul’s School boys ice hockey team, went into the 2021 winter athletics season with no expectations. He was well aware of the hurdles the schools of the Lakes Region League had to overcome to make the season a reality, which made the abbreviated schedule that did happen all that more impressive.
“It was remarkable that we were able to have interscholastic competition this winter with other Lakes Region schools,” reflects Murphy. “It’s a real statement about St. Paul’s School and our commitment to the student experience.”
In a six-week stretch beginning the first week of February, varsity and junior varsity athletes on the basketball, hockey, Nordic, and alpine teams were able to take on opponents from opposing schools. The wrestling and squash teams were not able to partake in interscholastic contests, but both programs found creative ways to keep athletes engaged, improving, and competing.
The fall of 2020 saw a handful of interscholastic competitions take place as schools tested portions of their populations periodically, and took comfort in competing outside. But as contests moved into hockey rinks and basketball courts, it became clear that the testing had to be more rigorous across the board. “We were fortunate with the schools that we were working with and the number of things everyone was willing to do,” notes Director of Athletics Dick Muther. “It wasn’t magic, it was a group of schools committed to specific protocols.”
Those protocols involved producing negative tests for every player and coach before each weekend of competition and staying as nimble as possible in case start times needed to shift. In many cases, it was only a matter of hours before coaches knew if a game would happen or not. Murphy led his team through the uncertain pre-game approval process by making the experience on the ice similar to the academic experience at the School. “It is skills and content-based, just like in the classroom,” says Murphy. “The game is just the test and if the test got moved, we had more time to prepare for it. I think we had outstanding results on the ice because of that approach.”
Jen Fithian, head coach for girls basketball, ran a productive “virtual basketball camp” over Winter Break and the subsequent distance learning period, enabling her team to make the most of the limited in-person practice time ahead of its first game. “It gave us something to look forward to,” says Fithian of the interscholastic schedule. “These kids didn’t have to do this, but they pushed themselves and pushed each other and truly became a team.”
Both Fithian and Murphy were impressed with the resilience their players showed throughout the season, as any initial disappointment or frustration quickly shifted to a place of gratitude. While many peer schools’ athletic schedules consisted entirely of inter-squad scrimmages, nearly 200 SPS athletes were able to participate in interscholastic competition this winter. And even without trophies, tournaments, or in-person fans to play for, the student-athletes stayed motivated and continued to improve.
The momentum from the winter season has Muther enthused about what the spring season could look like. “These are the athletes that didn’t get to play at all last spring, and we are acutely aware of that. We’ll do everything we can to make sure the season happens safely and intelligently.”