ESSEX -- The outer grounds of the Essex High School (EHS) campus were buzzing this past week after the final bell as Hornet Athletics returned to action.

With 2020 spring seasons being cancelled, along with the remainder of the girls' basketball championship tournament, Essex High athletes had not participated in school-sanctioned activities since mid-March. That hiatus came to an end Sept. 8.

"We were happy to be back out and throwing the football around," said head varsity football coach Drew Gordon. "It's great to see the kids, because we haven't been able to since COVID started, which has obviously been frustrating but understandable given the circumstances. So it was really nice to see the kids coming out."

While teams can compete within themselves during practice sessions, programs cannot participate against other schools until Vermont enters Step III of the Agency of Education's safety and health guidance for reopening; the state is currently in Step II, and it's not expected to move to Step III for at least another week.

Multiple EHS teams were scattered throughout the field behind the school last week, practicing physical distancing between the programs as well as individuals as much as possible.

One of the major differences seen this year compared to those from the past: face masks. Except for cross country runners, and bass fishing participants and golfers when they're able to maintain distance from one another, all athletes will need to wear facial coverings during practices and competition. However, there was a sense that they're taking it in stride.

"I think it was really a positive week," said Barb Isham who will be handling the in-person coaching responsibilities for the varsity field hockey team; head coach Grace O'Neil is purely teaching remotely while the district is using a hybrid model of instruction and is taking care of the planning and organizational aspects of coaching.

"The girls have handled the masks really well," Isham added. "I think they're just happy to be out here, to be playing, and to be a part of something."

"It's still taking some getting used to," said Thomas Hoffman, a senior wide receiver and defensive back on the football team, about the masks.

The other noticeable differences this year are that volleyball was joining the other squads outside, and football was using helmets but not full pads. Volleyball across the state will not be permitted to play indoors this fall and will instead be facilitated on grass or turf courts. Football has moved to a 7-on-7 touch style of play that won't include tackling.

"Overall, the experience has been, honestly, really great," said Hoffman. "I will say, I did doubt how fun it would be -- just not being able to hit people. But I still have the same mentality going and am just trying to work as hard as possible, and it's been it's been really good. Coach has been going through with us with a lot of the same stuff, and it's just kind of the same feel. I'm really enjoying it."

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