Anoka-Hennepin coach Pete Kutches savored various elements of his adapted softball team's victory earlier this month in Rochester, an emotional bookend to the lost 2020 season.
The Mustangs were out of town. Playing an opposing team. Heck, just playing a game period.
These once-common occurrences, along with state tournaments, were wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic last spring. While other sports returned to more regular competition more quickly, adapted sports leaders held extra concern for their athletes in the physically- and cognitively impaired divisions, some of whom are more vulnerable to medical complications.
Kutches wondered how the competitive layoff would affect his team.
"We were rusty because it had been a while since a lot of kids had any reps," said Kutches, the Mustangs' PI Division softball coach. "So, for us to take a two-hour trip to Rochester and win in extra innings was awesome. We celebrated the fact that we have all come a long way from last year. There was a sense that we are coming out of this."
Normalcy returned in stages this school year. Fall soccer practices were allowed. Marcus Onsum, longtime coach of Robbinsdale/Hopkins/Mound Westonka, said "When we met outside on the turf at Armstrong, there was this sense of gratitude that we got to be together."
A one-day tournament followed the winter floor hockey season. Spring brought a smaller-scale competitive softball regular season that ends Saturday without postseason play.
State tournaments, canceled just before the 2020 floor hockey event, finally returned in May with a virtual adapted bowling event. Onsum expects another step forward for adapted sports in the approaching 2021-22 school year.
"I think what you saw this year, with the success of our softball season, will be the bare minimum starting point for all our sports next year," Onsum said. "I do feel that the players, coaches, parents and school leaders have done enough in terms of following the safety protocols where come September, things can look pretty close to regular."
Irregular seasons failed to deter seniors Michael Goldberger and William Rausch. Both were part of teams with great promise that didn't get a chance to prove themselves on the state tournament stage.
Goldberger, an Eagan student playing with the Dakota United cooperative team, said losing a shot at the 2020 floor hockey state tournament in the cognitively-impaired division was "a big, big bummer. We were a dream team loaded with juniors and seniors."
In March, Goldberger's Team Dream won the inaugural Winter Classic Adaptive Floor Hockey Tournament held at Hope Fieldhouse in Rosemount. Team Dream bested a 12-team field.
"It meant a lot to play, to be there with my teammates and for us to be there for the whole adapted athletics community," said Goldberger, this year's Ed Prohofsky Award recipient as the player of the year in the cognitively impaired division.
For Rausch, a Coon Rapids student playing with Anoka-Hennepin, taking part in the four-team spring softball league for physically impaired athletes meant a great deal. Most softball teams were relegated to a season of practices or intra-team scrimmages because of school districts' logistical challenges.
"It felt pretty normal even though not all the teams were playing," Rausch said. "It was really important for us to be out there together."
The full effect of altering the past five adapted sports seasons is not fully known, said Brett Kosidowski, a Dakota United coach. He fears some adapted athletes were not aware of playing options at their schools and hopes to restore those connections going forward.
Rausch said enduring the past 15 months taught him, "You're going to get what you get, and you have to cope with it."