By Tris Wykes

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Jeff Acker has an apt analogy for the necessity of his Hartford High girls soccer players wearing masks for Covid-19 prevention.

“It’s like getting braces on your teeth,” said the 15th-year head coach. “When you first get them, you can’t stop touching them and running your tongue on them and they hurt and you complain about them. Then, after two or three days you forget they’re there.”

Hartford High soccer players, left to right, Arianna Heijn, Bella Murphy and Toni Harper-Ebbs listen to instructions during a Sept. 10 practice at the Maxfield Recreation Complex. Nora Lyons is in the background. All Hurricanes must wear masks during soccer practices and games.

So it appears for the Hurricanes, who conducted a 90-minute practice Thursday at the Maxfield Sports Complex. A few players pulled their masks down periodically but the overall compliance rate was high. That included Acker, who said he went through half a dozen mask types before settling on a black gaiter.

“The biggest issue for me is fogging on my glasses,” said the roofing company owner. “If I scrunch the gaiter up good and high, I don’t fog.”

The downside is that Acker is sometimes muffled when he attempts to speak or bellow through the scrunched fabric. Therefore, he sometimes has to repeat himself. It’s all worthwhile, however, said the coach and his troops.

“We’d much rather go with the flow and wear masks and play soccer,” said senior Eleanor Hinckley, noting that losing sports during the spring is something fall athletes don’t want to endure. “We’re just grateful to have some sort of season, no matter what it looks like.”

Hinckley’s found wearing a mask while running to be less daunting than she’d feared.

“I didn’t think I’d be able to breath in it as easy as I can,” the forward said. “I definitely thought it was going to be way more challenging. It’s only bad when it’s humid.”

Classmate Reilly Slusser said she has to wash her practice gaiter every day because it’s soaked by the end of a workout. The Hurricanes expect they’ll change face coverings at halftime of games, and perhaps even more often than that.

“Never in a million years did I think my senior season would be like this,” said Slusser, whose team reached the Vermont Division II quarterfinals last fall.

Acker said he went all-in on strictly requiring masks once state rules mandated them midway through the summer. The coach also checks each player’s (and journalist’s) temperature with a non-contact thermometer and asks them questions about health and travel before they step on the field.

Students coming directly from school don’t have to go through that drill, because they already participated in it there. Acker said he doesn’t see such precautions disappearing anytime soon.

“With what we read about in the news these days nationally and locally, I can’t see any (high school administrators) saying ‘Let’s remove a restriction’ at this point,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense. I think they’re here to stay and that’s fine – we’ll deal with it.”

Hartford is allowing 150 masked people to attend girls soccer games. Each player will receive two tickets and those remaining will be on a first-come, first-served general admission basis. For road games on the 11-contest schedule, the varsity and JV teams will no longer ride in the same vehicle and must adhere to a seating chart. Parents may drive their children.

Referees will not police the mask mandate on the field, leaving that to coaches and players. Acker said he’s confident he and his peers realize the seriousness of complying.

“It’s a privilege to be able to coach high school sports in general, and an extra privilege that we’ve been allowed to play these games when in lots of places they’re not,” he said.

“If we don’t get through a season, it won’t because of something that went wrong with sports. If we have to back off, it will be because something isn’t working in the community or in the schools.”

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