Saline Middle School Student-Athletes Embraced New Challenges, Learned New Lessons Competing During a Pandemic


School athletics are an extension of the classroom. That's never been more true than in 2020 at Saline Middle School.

Coaches and athletes often measure their success in wins and losses - and yes, they're still doing that in middle school sports. This year the goal was a little more basic, but daunting, nonetheless.

Chris DeFant coached volleyball at the middle school. She was joined by fellow middle school coaches Joe Welton and Sandy Stafford and a few of their athletes at Tuesday's Board of Education meeting as they spoke about the trials and triumphs

"The success of our season, this fall was not based on our win-loss records, although those were pretty good, too. But rather, how the teams navigated the new safety protocols, like the daily health screenings, temperature checks, equipment cleaning routines, social distancing, and, of course learning to play and coach with our masks," DeFant said.

She was impressed by the way her athletes handled the challenges.

"Throughout the season we were all so proud of our players' ability to show up every day, whether they were in-person or virtual learners, and by their positive attitude perseverance and amazing flexibility. It was truly inspiring, as they competed every day on the court at practice and the games, how they supported each other."

DeFant also credited the patience of families, who dealt with fluid game schedules, spectator limitations and strict health guidelines. She also thanked Principal Laura Washington, Assistant Principal Alex Schukow, the transportation department and athletic department for their support.

Her athletes were grateful for the chance to play.

"Honestly, it was really exciting to play because we didn't even know we were going to have a season, so when we found out we were all super excited," said Madison.

For Sydney White, one of the challenges was playing in a mask - and not for the reasons you might think.

"One thing that really stood out to me this season was how masks were a challenge for us to work around. But they also helped us in a way. Volleyball is all about communication.  So with the masks it kind of taught us to help us learn to speak louder and so it was easier for us to communicate," White said. This year we had a lot of times where it looked like we didn't know we were doing but those were the best times because we all looked back and laughed at them."

Stafford coaches the cross country team and is the aquatic specialist for the district. Over the summer, she and other coaches got together to figure out how they were going to tackle a sports season during a pandemic.

"The philosophy became let's focus on the positives: what can we do versus what we can't do," Stafford said.

The focus become on the "3 Ms." Masks. Markings. Modifications. Families bought into the safety protocols, especially on student pickups. The kids used gobs of sanitizer. And they wore masks while running long distances.

"The summer running happened because everyone followed protocol. Fortunately, I had a great group of assistant coaches who, from day one, bought in. They weren't scared or nervous. They focused on what they could do to make the sport safely happen for these kids," Stafford said. "And so, it became our new normal. And it became our new normal. The kids were really happy."

Stafford also credited Athletic Director Andrew Parrish for his assistance.  

Saline participated in five meets, including three at home. Both the boys' and girls' teams were undefeated. They began the season with 100 athletes and lost five to football.

"We had PRs across the board. The kids gave it their all. And what we kept hearing from parents and athletes was 'Thank you, so much, it mentally and emotionally helped my child,'" Stafford said.  "It really became about the whole athlete - and that's really out philosophy to begin with - but we were really able to live it and breathe it."

A student name Mara said she learned a lot about herself as a runner and a person this year as she struggled with an injuries and pre-race anxiety.

"Because of all this, the season was successful to me because I have learned more about myself and made a lot of friends on the team. I have a great relationship with my teammate and my coaches," Mara said. "My strong work ethic and my perseverance is also reflected in school and I have gained a lot of self-confidence from the season."

Eighth-grader Brady Seller told the board he's been a runner since "day one." He said he was "super happy" to have a season and that he learned much this year. He shaved more than three minutes off his time.

"My best races were when people would try to pass me and we would keep on working and push the pace until at the end we eventually be first," Seller said. "And I know a lot of things are uncertain, but I'm certain we had a great time this season."

Joe Welton coaches middle school football. 

"We talked a lot about the little things. If you look at our guys, we all wear the right shirt. We all have our shirt tucked in and we dress the right way," Welton said. "We talk about that when we go to play too. We care about the little things very much and when we go out on that field to represent coach Crabtree or coach Palka and everybody that's come through the program. We care about those six letters across our chest very much."

Another emphasis this year was demonstrating the ability to be excited for teammates.

"We could have played a thousand football games, but for us, that really meant more than anything else - can we be excited for the guy who did something, other than me?" Welton told the board.

In football, toughness is always an emphasis. And this year, was a great year for showing perseverance.

"Coach Palka says that every Friday night, we're going to be the toughest and most physical team on the field - not only when it's going good for us, but when it's toughest," Welton said. "We're going to love each other. We're going to play for each other. We're going to wear our shirt right, dress the right way, and, represent Saline. If we did that, we were going to have a lot of fun. And we had a lot of fun."

A player named Matthew thanked the board for allowing athletes to participate in sports.

"It was tough wearing masks. It's different than all the other years. For the season, we went 4-1 and we beat Bedford, which is always great," Matthew said. "And it was great to see some teammates that I didn't get to see in school. This season will always be the COVID season."

A student named Aidan also thanked the board.

"This means a lot to me since I've been playing football since third grade I'm always missing football whenever I'm off the field," he said. "To put on that jersey just fills me up with pride that I'm representing my school and my football team."

Eric Friedholm also thanked the board for allowing the team to play.

"Playing Saline football means continuing a great reputation and following the footsteps of the people who came in previous years.  I was grateful for everyone who allowed us to play this year," Friedholm said.

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