AMERICAN FORK, Utah — Pre-match temperature scans, required use of hand sanitizer and the oh-so-common face covering that has come to define 2020 were of little distraction Tuesday afternoon in north-central Utah.
That’s because the focus was no longer the protocols and COVID-19 cases, but rather the fact high school soccer had returned.
On a day when neighboring Colorado opted to push boys soccer to the spring, Utah girls began regular-season play — making it the first to resume state-sanctioned high school soccer play since the COVID-19 outbreak shut down high school sports in March. The last state-sanctioned high school event in Utah was held 143 days ago.
"It definitely had a different feeling," said Derek Dunn, head coach of defending 6A state champion American Fork. "Everyone was wearing masks, a check-in table at the entrance with hand sanitizer, players spread out in the locker room. I looked at the kids and said, 'This is one of our greatest days in a long time. You can’t see it [as Dunn was wearing a mask], but I’m smiling ear-to-ear.'"
It took a little while on the field, but Dunn again was smiling. American Fork conceded the first goal then rallied for a comfortable 6-1 victory over Salt Lake City East in one of 27 matches contested Tuesday in Utah.
"I'm really thankful we got to play — especially since so many other states can't play right now," said American Fork senior Addie Gardner. "I'm grateful for the coaches and the refs, and for everyone who made high school sports a priority."
"After being locked in for months, like the rest of the country, I could literally cry," Dunn added. "It was like we came out of the darkness today. Just to play brought life into (the players)."
For Gardner, who netted the game-winning goal in last year's 6A state final, Tuesday turned out to be a special day. First off, simply taking the field was an accomplishment of its own, but then she netted three goals — including the game-winner — and then after the match she verbally committed to BYU.
"I don’t know how to describe it," she confessed. "I'm so happy. I'm a soccer player and I got to do what I love."
Of course, for Gardner and the rest of the players, the set-up Tuesday was quite unusual. Players and spectators arrived at the facility wearing face masks and needed to use hand sanitizer upon entering the stadium for the 3:30 p.m. contest. Players were ushered into the school building, lined up — socially distanced apart — and temperatures were taken and documented. Spectators spaced out along the sidelines and only a few used the bleachers. Players went through pre-game drills wearing masks. Once the match started, only players on the field could remove their masks. Players leaving and entering the match were required to use hand sanitizer, which was set up on a table near the midfield check-in area.
Dunn said the action on the field quickly turned into soccer as usual — save for the fact the two assistant refs were wearing masks. Lilly Randall staked East to a 1-0 lead midway through the first half. Gardner, who was a TopDrawerSoccer State Star for the 2019 season, then scored twice before halftime to give American Fork a 2-1 lead. Addie Larsen, Presley Ray, AJ Stromberg and Gardner added second-half goals to seal the outcome.
Dunn said players celebrated goals as usual and at the end of the contest basked in the glory of a victory. But, Dunn was quick to temper the excitement knowing the COVID-19 threat remains and any future outbreak could bring an unexpected end to the season.
"This feeling is amazing, but we can wake up tomorrow and have it all taken away," he said.
Gardner added, "We had to wait for the governor of Utah to give us the OK, and so far nothing has changed. But I'm a senior and I'm going to play every game like it's my last because at any time, it could be my last game."