WORTON — Poised to begin practice next week for what they hoped would be a second consecutive championship season in field hockey, the Trojans learned on Monday that their season — like the fall seasons for all high school sports teams in Maryland — has been postponed.
"It's so heartbreaking," Kent County head coach Susan Wright-Taylor said of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association decision to postpone sports during the first semester of the 2020-21 academic year, which runs through the end of January.
Wright-Taylor, set to begin her fifth year as head coach at alma mater KCHS, said she was "holding out hope" that fall sports would be a go even as school systems across the state — Kent, among them — were opting to open with all-online instruction in an abundance of caution due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Set to return 14 players, about half of them starters, from the reigning 1A East Region I title team, Wright-Taylor said expectations were high for a repeat.
And then came Monday's noontime news release from the MPSSAA, the governing body for high school sports in Maryland.
Wright-Taylor said sending a group text message to her players that the season had been put on pause — that what she had dreaded was now "real" — was one of the most difficult things she has had to do in a long career as an assistant and head coach.
In a news release, the MPSSAA said the decision was made in consultation with state Superintendent Karen Salmon, the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland and the Maryland Department of Health.
"This decision comes in light of the recent announcements of local school systems to begin education virtually and provides each school system with options for the gradual increase of student engagement for the physical and social-emotional health of students," the MPSSAA posted on its website.
The Kent County Board of Education on July 27 voted unanimously to start the school year on a virtual platform.
Other area school systems, including Cecil, Queen Anne's, Caroline, Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester, also will reopen remotely.
Schools across the state were shuttered March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With Monday's announcement, local school systems will be able to use MPSSAA waiver regulations as approved by the Maryland State Board of Education on June 23 for student engagement during the first semester.
The MPSSAA, the PSSAM and the state health department will continue to collaborate on finalizing a hybrid two-semester plan focused on student engagement options in the first semester and modified competition seasons for all sports in the second semester, according to a news release.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Kent County Athletic Director Kevin Taylor said one of the options that is getting a lot of support is having fall, winter and spring seasons during the second semester, beginning Feb. 1. Each would consist of three weeks of preseason and five weeks of competition.
"Right now there is not enough information to say if there would be any state playoff format," Taylor wrote Monday in an email to Kent's fall coaches.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions," he said during Tuesday's phone call, while also noting that the 18 public high schools on the Eastern Shore that make up the Bayside Conference are "trying to stay on the same page."
Details of the hybrid two-semester plan will be announced in the coming weeks, prior to the start of the 2020-21 academic year.
The first day for Kent County Public School students is Tuesday, Sept. 8.
Some school systems — Cecil, Dorchester and Queen Anne's are among them — are opening before Labor Day.
The post on the MPSSAA website reads: "The health and safety of student participants, coaches and officials is a primary concern for the return of interscholastic athletics and activities. The MPSSAA, the PSSAM and the Maryland State Department of Education collectively share a commitment for the return of these highly beneficial educational programs when it is deemed safe for all school communities."
Statewide, practices for the fall sports of cheerleading, cross country, field hockey, football, golf, boys and girls soccer, unified tennis and volleyball were to start Wednesday, Aug. 12.
At its July 13 meeting, Kent County's school board approved a full slate of head coaches for the fall.
Athletic Director Taylor said he will meet with Superintendent Karen Couch and high school Principal Dale Kevin Brown next week to determine how much contact coaches will be permitted to have with their players during the first semester.
For the time being, volunteer conditioning that is not sport-specific — sprints and agility ladders, for example — is allowed. Groups are limited and physical distancing is required.
Kent's cheerleading, girls soccer and football programs have been doing that for the last couple of weeks outdoors at the high school in Worton, Taylor said in Tuesday's telephone interview.
"It's been nice to get the kids out there and working," Dave Boyle, set to begin his third year as the head football coach, said of the 45-minute workouts on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
But the MPSSAA's latest ruling on sports is "pretty disappointing," added Boyle, who also coaches boys lacrosse and lost the spring season due to COVID-19.
Boyle said he "spent a ton of time in the offseason" getting ready for what he anticipated would be a solid 2020 football campaign.
He said the task at hand right now is "figuring out what I need to do to help support mainly the seniors," a group he described as close-knit and businesslike, who work hard, play hard and get it done, while also having fun.
And what about the field hockey season?
"I'm still holding out hope that we'll get our chance," Wright-Taylor said.