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PAYNE: Empty stadiums on Labor Day are a tough pill for us all to swallow

PAYNE: Empty stadiums on Labor Day are a tough pill for us all to swallow

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By the time a typical Labor Day rolls around, college football is wrapping up its opening weekend, the NFL is about to kick off its regular season, and the fall high school sports season is well underway.

As we’re all well aware of by now though, 2020 has been anything but typical. That word went out the window six months ago thanks to COVID-19.

More recently, the reality of how unconventional a time we’re living in hit close to home when the Virginia High School League proposed a plan that, when (likely) approved, will move football, field hockey, volleyball and other fall pastimes to next spring. That news means the local sports that student-athletes, student bodies and everyday citizens across the state lean on so heavily in order to foster a sense of accomplishment, teamwork, and pride in their respective schools and communities will be absent until at least mid December, when winter sports are (tentatively) scheduled to begin.

For a sportswriter in a small community, the sight of empty stadiums, pitches and gyms during the first week of September is just as sobering for my colleagues and I as it is for all of the above.

If you haven’t experienced the adrenaline rush of attempting to put a Friday-night classic into the proper words while a tight deadline bears down on you with the same ferocity Reggie White once levied against NFL quarterbacks, then it can’t be adequately explained.

I’ve often thought back to the Eastern View football team’s thrilling 19-14 Region 4B playoff victory at Louisa in Nov. 2018. On that night, Cyclones quarterback Matt Lowry’s twice-tipped pass landed in the hands of teammate Blake Leake, who rode the wings of destiny to the end zone for the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds.

As Leake crossed the goal line that night, I hustled down from the press box almost faster than my out-of-shape legs could carry me, fully intent on capturing the wild celebration that ultimately ensued. I even wound up chasing head coach Greg Hatfield and his players up a steep hill to the visitors’ locker room in order to take in the raw emotion, and I can vividly recall the Free Lance-Star’s Joey LoMonaco and I meeting there and sharing our collective amazement at what we’d just witnessed (although he may not have understood half of what I was saying since I was, after all, out of breath from that hill).

Joey and I had traveled the exact same path that night, all for the sake of telling our readers that incredible story.

In the end, I coined that contest the “Miracle in Mineral.” (Fortunately for me, my wife attended the game as well, so she drove us home as I sat in the passenger seat spitballing that catchy name and typing away at the mercy of the aforementioned deadline).

Ah, the life of a sportswriter in a small community...

I found myself in a similar predicament the following November, when I had the privilege of covering the Cyclones field hockey team’s dramatic 3-2 overtime win against Great Bridge in the Class 4 state championship game.

On that occasion, both the Eastern View girls and I had traveled over an hour one way to be there (South County High School in Lorton). However, their journey had started long before then, as they’d tasted bitter defeat in each of the previous two state title games.

After rallying from a 2-0 deficit early in the contest, the Cyclones earned the victory when Sarah Hatfield tipped-in teammate Cassidy Morrison’s shot just 3 minutes and 7 seconds into sudden death.

Unlike the climax of the “Miracle in Mineral,” I was standing literally feet away from Hatfield when she tipped the ball into the cage. In the aftermath, I had a front-row seat to the tears of not only Hatfield and her teammates, but the privilege of capturing veteran Eastern View head coach Peggy Allen’s reaction to her first state crown.

The photo I took of Allen hugging her players, which ran along with the game story and other subsequent features, is something I’ll treasure long after my time in this business has passed.

Ah, the life of a sportswriter in a small community...

The moments I described in-depth here are examples of everything that’s great about high school sports, but that greatness doesn’t just stop there. There’s also the admiration for all the little things.

Every time I watch a volleyball or basketball player go to their knees on a hard court, sacrificing their well-being for the good of their team, I’m reminded of how magical high school athletics are and how lucky I am to cover them. And every time I see an athlete fight back from an injury to return to their chosen sport or sports, I’m reminded what a privilege it is to tell their story.

Speaking of athletes overcoming injuries and sacrificing their well-being for the sake of their respective squads, Hatfield was smacked flush in the jaw by a hockey stick during a regular season game that took place just six weeks before the state championship game. Though unable to fully open her jaw for several days following the accident, she was back in the Cyclones’ lineup for their next game, leading their charge to gold.

That’s the passion and dedication that all of us, whether its players, coaches, members of the community or scribes such as yours truly, bring to these now-vacant stadiums, pitches and gyms. It’s why we all love high school sports, and as we wait for some semblance of normalcy to return to everyday life, their absence is felt from the Culpeper countryside to Big Stone Gap and the 757 to NoVa.

Ah, the life of a sportswriter in a small community ... I miss that life.

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