It’s been a long year of not seeing faces

St. Croix Central football coach John Tackmann leads the celebration after the Panthers’ last-second victory over Onalaska last fall. Bob Burrows / Star-Observer

I was reviewing the pictures on my camera shortly after the St. Croix Central football team rushed off the sidelines to celebrate its last second victory over Onalaska last fall when one shot jumped out at me. ‘That’s my front page pic!’ I thought.

Panther head coach John Tackmann was leading the charge, arms spread, mouth wide open in mid-yell, as he prepared to embrace the first player he could find.

It was Oct. 16 but just the fourth game of the season for the Panthers after the WIAA pushed the start of the high school football season back a month due to COVID. There were hardly any fans in the stands except parents as St. Croix Central, like every other school district, implemented the long list of rules designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus-- including masks for all competitors, officials, coaches and spectators.

When I got home after the game I downloaded my photos and went right to what I hoped would be my front page pic. I’d run it six columns at the top of the page, showing all the emotion that comes with a last-second victory. But as I started to crop the pic I realized-- Tackmann’s mask had slipped down below his chin. That’s the only reason I could see the expression on his face.

Crap. I didn’t want to get Tackmann or the school district in trouble. After missing an entire spring season due to COVID, the return to sports in the fall required an adjustment for all, like wearing masks and social distancing. And it had been made pretty clear by state and local health officials, as well as the local school districts, that fall sports would only continue if those strict protocols were adhered to.

I believe one of the things that makes a great sports photo is the facial expressions. The grimace of a wrestler as he tries to escape from an opponent. The tip of a basketball player’s tongue out the side of the mouth as he or she drives for a layup. Or a player letting out a scream of joy after a big win.

I missed that during the fall and winter seasons. Actually it was just one of the things I missed. The lack of fans-- student sections in particular-- was jarring. I want to hear the crowd. I want to hear the students chanting. I want to take pictures of the kids in their goofy outfits.

But the student-athletes? They were just happy to be competing-- masks or no masks. And I’ve got to hand it to the kids, the schools and the WIAA for pulling it off.

Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of bumps in the road. It was heartbreaking to see Hudson senior Paige Hillman miss her last chance at state golf last fall due to contact tracing because she happened to sit at the same lunch table as a classmate who tested positive. And it was tough on the River Falls football team to play just three games.

But there were also bright spots. The River Falls volleyball team qualified for state for the fifth straight year. Max Blader of New Richmond, Grant Magnuson of River Falls and Haley Loewe of Hudson all finished in the top ten at state cross country. Sally Vangsness of St. Croix Central took fifth at state golf. And Faith Eilertson and Katie Auge of Hudson both placed at state swimming and diving.

And it continued in the winter. The Hudson boys’ hockey team won its fifth state championship in school history and third in the last five years. River Falls’ gymnast Autumn Tiede won the state floor title. Hudson’s Andrew Hanson earned silver at state swimming. Hudson’s girls, River Falls’ boys and St. Croix Central’s boys all qualified for their respective state basketball tournaments. And St. Croix Central’s Devin Wasley and Hudson’s Peter Hansen both placed at state wrestling.

I’m hoping to shoot more bright spots when spring sports finally start in two weeks, and I’m looking forward to shooting my first track meet in two years. I just hope I’ll be able to see those facial expressions again.

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