It isn’t about adding new pieces to the puzzle. Instead, coaches are using the few remaining pieces as a head start toward a puzzle that needs to be solved.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused turmoil throughout society, including the world of sports. Berkshire County’s athletic directors worked tirelessly to successfully pull together seasons for fall and winter sports.
With that in mind, spring sports weren’t salvageable in 2020 — the only season completely lost due to the pandemic.
Truncated fall and winter sports seasons have come and gone. Athletes are in the midst of Week 1 for spring sports and coaches are facing the challenge of jumping right into action with little-to-no information about their players.
“I’ve never had tryouts outside, they’re usually in the gym in the middle of March,” Hoosac Valley softball coach Mike Ameen said. “We were outside for our first practice and I received a schedule for games starting seven days later.”
Due to the loss of the spring season, the only returning players coaches may recognize would’ve been either sophomores or freshmen for the 2019 season.
“Personally, I think there is a disconnect,” said Ameen, who is entering his 24th season coaching softball. “It isn’t a bad thing, but the last game I coached in high school was June of 2019.
“It is almost June again, that means it is two years since we took the field at Hoosac Valley.”
With uniquely disjointed roster construction, the class of 2021 missed its junior season, but aren’t using that as a reason to lack the leadership needed from a senior class.
“We have three seniors and they’ve been so much help,” Pittsfield coach Jim Clary said. “They’ve all really stepped up in practice.”
Mia Potash, Alyssa Mercier and Lexi Sondrini were all sophomores when the Generals played in the Western Massachusetts Division I championship game in the spring of 2019.
“I know some of these girls after being involved with the program for so many years,” said Clary, who is in his sixth year working with the Generals. “I didn’t coach any of these girls, though.
“We’re cramming a lot into just a couple of days and had a couple of rain days.”
In Cheshire, Ameen is leaning on a trio he dubbed “The Queen and her court.” The name is inspired by Eddie Feigner, an American softball player who assembled a four-man team consisting of a pitcher, catcher, first baseman and shortstop. Feigner, from roughly the 1940s until the early 2000s, toured the country competing in softball games.
“We have three quarters [of The Queen and her court],” Ameen said. Madi Puppolo is returning as the team’s pitcher, Rylie Bishop remains behind the plate and Rylynn Witek is penciled in as the team’s shortstop.
With new faces making up most of Berkshire County’s spring rosters, cohesion is atop the to-do list.
“It has been difficult trying to get the rust off,” said Michelle Darling, coach at Drury. “We’ve done a lot of team building and jammed a lot of stuff into a week. We had to wait for Fall II sports to end in order to get everyone together.”
As a teacher, Darling has seen some of her players as students return to school in the hybrid model.
“I’ve gotten to meet them,” Darling said. “We have four returning seniors as a base, two juniors, two freshman and a sophomore.
“We got to know each other [in the first week] and now that we’re going in full, we’re focused on the ins and outs of high school sports and what they’re all about.”
The Blue Devils won eight games back in 2019 and will lean on the senior foursome of Caroline Cellana, Kylie Clay, Mackenzie Dobbert and Olivia Mazzacco.
The spring season is the first of its kind and coaches believe batting practice and fielding grounders may not be the best form of preparation.
“Communication and team building are more important than teaching skills,” Ameen said. “In seven days they won’t get better physically, but they can get better with positive attitudes, having fun and gaining confidence.
“We’re trying to build the team’s bond and helping the younger kids feel like part of the team.”
Much like fall and winter sports, the spring season is coming quickly and won’t feature many pit stops. Each team has officially entered the fray as of the week of May 10. Tournaments are slated to begin June 15 and run until June 30.
“I’m looking forward to this challenge,” Ameen said of the 2021 season, “after 24 years it is something new and the key is for the kids to have fun and play some sports.”