After lost year, despite concerns, CIAC gets through 2021 football season

Night 1 of the Connecticut high school football season almost felt like a dream, the sport emerging from the Waterbury mist after a year lost to a virus.

That night at Municipal Stadium, Ansonia coach Tom Brockett spoke for a whole lot of people hoping that Night 1 vibe was going to last until Night 94 and the CIAC championship games.

“I just hope we can play every game this year,” Brockett said Sept. 9 at Municipal Stadium.

“These kids deserve it. It’s hard, I mean, again, but inside I think everyone’s a little apprehensive. We talk more about staying six feet apart than we do blocking right now. So it’s different. Times have changed, but kids have adapted. Throughout the whole state, I want to see all these kids have a great year.”

On Saturday, Night 94 ended with all four championship games completed, four teams ecstatic, four teams heartbroken for an on-field loss rather than off-field deprivals.

“This is what we do everything for, to see the kids out here, the smiles on their faces, the experiences we’re able to give them right now,” CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini said Saturday between the Class L and Class M finals at New Britain’s Veterans Stadium.

“This is what the last two years have been about, getting back to this moment right here.”

Not to revisit the past for long, but the CIAC didn’t sanction a tackle football season in 2020, never getting a go-ahead from the state’s Department of Public Health amid the pre-vaccination COVID-19 pandemic.

Some players had a short independent schedule before the state shut down youth football, then shut down youth sports for two months. Others got “football activities” like 7-on-7 play and lineman challenges. Others got nothing at all.

“It was tough,” said Killingly running back/linebacker Soren Rief, who missed out on his freshman year but helped his team to the Class M title as a sophomore. “We worked all season with (assistant) coach (Chad) Caffrey in the barn and some of the other coaches.

“This was our goal. We put our hearts out on the field every game, and we did good this year.”

The season didn’t look exactly the same as usual. Some teams, even some storied programs, appeared to be down some in numbers, though that could be for any number of reasons.

Even something like the CIAC’s media luncheon for championship teams, an annual get-together midweek between the semifinals and finals, went online.

But a couple of players said they were confident the state would get here.

“The virus wouldn’t stop us,” Class L champion Maloney quarterback Angel Arce said.

“There was never any concern,” Killingly receiver/defensive back Ben Jax said. “We knew we could push all of ourselves through this.”

The pandemic didn’t leave the state alone. Some teams had players miss games. Other teams had to shut down for anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. At midseason, there were some concerns about piecing and repiecing together the schedule. A number of games were moved around; the NVL almost redrew its whole slate in early October with Oxford on hold for two weekends.

But teams only had to cancel five contests for COVID reasons. Of teams that were set to play a full schedule, only nine lost a game canceled for COVID reasons; Gilbert/Northwestern/Housatonic lost two (and only played seven games on the field, receiving one forfeit win, but it still qualified for the Class M playoffs).

No team in Class LL played fewer than 10; only Hartford Public did in L, but it only had nine games scheduled.

That meant everyone who was trying to play the eight games necessary by rule to qualify as a CIAC tournament team got their eight games in. The governing body had said it could revisit that rule if it became necessary, but it thankfully didn’t need to.

“We’re grateful for all the work our ADs, our coaches, our officials, our trainers, everybody put into this,” Lungarini said. “Just to provide this experience to the kids is tremendous and means an awful lot to them.”

All right, then: Now that it’s over, now that they made it, was there any doubt in Lungarini’s mind that it would happen? The “nah” he let out was emphatic, dismissive.

“We had a very good group of doctors, good group of administrators working with us throughout the process. We were going to be here in this moment,” he said.

“We’re going to be in this moment in the winter championships. We’re going to be in it in the spring. Our kids deserve having these opportunities, and we’re going to provide them.”

Pete Paguaga contributed to this report.; @fornabaioctp