For many high school athletes, 2020 was a year they'd sooner forget.

But it will always be one they remember — and mostly for unfortunate reasons.

The coronavirus pandemic that has engulfed the country and the world naturally affected their lives, too.

Some did not get to compete for championships; others did not get a chance to excel. But for most, they lost the shared experience of being part of a team. They lost the structure and the friendships that sports provide.

The pandemic's impact on local sports is The Sun's No. 1 sports story of the year.

In early March, the debate was fierce on whether the Rhode Island Interscholastic League and the CIAC should continue with their basketball tournaments as the virus continued to emerge.

On March 10, the CIAC canceled the remaining state tournaments games. A few days later, the RIIL followed suit.

The Wheeler High boys were among the victims of the pandemic shutdown. The Lions had won a state tournament game for the first time in 13 years, and were looking for more when everything stopped.

"It’s kind of like a bad prank, a cruel joke. To do all this hard work and get the rug pulled out from under you, it’s tough," longtime Wheeler coach Neal Cobleigh said then. "The kids are in shock, angry. We were coming off one of our best wins in school history and suddenly they pull the plug.”

Spencer Shiels, Chariho High's dynamic point guard, scored the 1,000th point of her career with 34.4 seconds left in a playoff game against South Kingstown on March 12. The size of the crowd was limited to 250, and those who attended were screened before entering the gym. It turned out to be the last game of the season for both teams.

This winter, Shiels and her teammates are still waiting to see if a season will take place.

In late April, the RIIL canceled spring sports, and the CIAC did the same in early May.

In the summer, Little League games did not take place and the district and state tournaments were wiped out. American Legion baseball was a no-go. Many road races were canceled.

In early September, the RIIL moved football to a so-called third season, to take place between the winter and spring seasons.

In Connecticut, the CIAC and the Department of Public Health went back and forth on a decision about football. The CIAC finally made it official on Sept. 16 that the season would not take place.

The decisions meant that Stonington High and Westerly High would not play each other in football for the first time since 1922. It was a devastating blow to the players on the teams and residents of both towns.

Many regard the game as the single most important athletic event of the year. The schools first started playing in 1911 and have played nearly every year since.

"We are a football town. Every single year we look forward to that game," Westerly senior Connor Martin said. "We care if we win the Super Bowl and other games matter. But I would take a Stonington game over a state championship game. I kind of feel bad for people that don't go to Stonington or Westerly and don't know what it's like.

"I've been playing with these guys for eight years. That game is kind of like our goodbye to Westerly football, and we are not going to have that this year."

Stonington's Bobby Dimock is the fourth generation of his family to play in the game.

"We have 20-something really talented seniors on this team," he said. "They are all really good players and they've been working so hard. It sucks. I've been waiting for this game since I was a little kid. I've been watching it and taking it in. I was pretty shocked."

Connecticut schools did end up playing 7 vs. 7 touch football in the fall.

A number of Stonington players and two from Westerly also joined with others to form a team in the Connecticut High School Independent Football League. The team played four games in the 11 vs. 11 full-tackle league and finished with a 1-3 record. The state eventually shut down the league.

In early November, the Westerly Community Credit Union announced its annual holiday basketball tournament was canceled. It would have been the 37th year of the annual event, which starts a day or two after Christmas.

The event serves as a fundraiser for the four athletic booster clubs of the participating schools: Westerly, Chariho, Stonington and South Kingstown. The credit union still donated $2,000 to each booster club.

"We have every intention of moving forward next year and we are still happy we can contribute to the schools. We look forward to being back in 2021," said Meg Sisco, the WCCU vice president of marketing.

The Chariho girls soccer season ended early due to a positive COVID-19 test on the team just a short time before the Division II tournament started. Stonington's boys soccer team did not get to play in the regional title game due to a positive test.

A number of fall teams were fortunate to get in most, if not all, of their games. But every sport had to deal with restrictions for practices and games.

Chariho's boys cross country team finished fifth in the state and had a first-team All-State runner in Sullivan Cummins.

Stonington's girls soccer team and the field hockey team both earned regional titles — there were no ECC tournaments this fall.

Both teams had to deal with the disappointment of not contending for a state title due to the pandemic, but they realized the importance of simply playing.

"I think we could have definitely made a run in the state tournament. It's unfortunate," Stonington girls soccer coach Jennifer Solomon said. "This was one of the best teams Stonington has had in a long time. But based on the circumstances, we were fortunate to play all our games.

"It's a tribute to the players that followed all the protocols the school district and Mr. Morrone (Stonington athletic director Bryan Morrone) had in place. The players were fantastic. We were a very talented team and it showed."

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