When I walked onto the field at Burlington High School to cover the D3 semifinal game between the Winooski Spartans (2) and the Enosburg Hornets (3), I had no idea how much I'd learn about the community of soccer.
The athletes were warming up under a cold, grey sky, and the stands, which should have been filled with cheering fans anticipating a hard-fought rivalry game, were completely empty.
We had 80 minutes to find out who'd be traveling to Hartford on Saturday, and there was no doubt both teams were completely focused on the goal.
The last two years have taken a toll on everyone, and these athletes were no exception. COVID-19 challenges have shaped their high school experiences. On top of that, they've all dealt with the circumstances that arose from the last time the two teams met on the field -- that Sept. 18 game that tumbled into confusion and crisis after a head-butt and allegations of racial taunts.
But here we were, on Nov. 2, freezing on the sideline and taking in a beautifully played game of soccer. And I mean, it was beautiful. At times it was a battle; at other times, it was a dance, almost choreographed in its skill and agility.
Contrary to what many expected, it was civil and respectful.
Athletes from opposing teams helped one another up, patted each other on the back, and showed mutual respect. Don't get me wrong, it was intense! But it was no more intense than any other close contest I've covered.
The game was flawless. Beautiful soccer, two deep, competitive teams battling it out under a canopy of golden oaks and moody skies -- sunshine steaming through breaks of clouds. The officiating was tight, but necessarily so, and it made for a showcase of soccer ability.
The lack of fans left the conversation on the field wide open for the hearing, four, maybe five languages humming as the players called across the field. Epic.
The clock ran out, and Enosburg earned the win; there was a celebration on one side and sadness on the other (as we'd expect). The teams shook hands.
I interviewed the Enosburg seniors, laughing and chatting with them about the game and their love for one another. I love that part.
Before I left, I had the opportunity to interview Dhiraj Dhakal, a former player and team mentor for Winooski. Dhiraj gave me a wonderful insight into his community.
He graduated from Winooski recently and he grew up in an immigrant community (as he called it) in Winooski. He spoke so eloquently of the "language" of soccer in his school and his town. Dhiraj's sincere and straightforward description of the bond between the game of soccer and the athletes -- the way the game provided a 'language' they could all speak, was eye-opening and beautiful.
You see, we may have many differences, but we have far more similarities. The words Dhiraj spoke to me weren't that much different from the ones athletes speak of all the time -- the joy of communication and the bonds of friendship forged through sports.
Those are the rivers of relationships that flow through the games and ignite a passion for the game.
I left the field feeling like the wealthiest woman in Vermont. You see, I love covering games, but it's the people I value most.