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The year in sports: From Ravens’ outbreak to empty stadiums and canceled seasons, COVID-19 changed everything

They gathered as Big Ten champions, their hearts and minds pointed toward a likely No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and a possible run to the Final Four.

Brenda Frese and her Maryland women’s basketball players knew the American sports landscape was shifting beneath their feet. The NBA had suspended its season the night before after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. College tournaments were blinking out in rapid succession. But as the Terps began practice on March 12, they still hoped the gathering pandemic would not slam their door shut. Then, they saw deputy athletic director Colleen Sorem walking ominously down the arena stairs at the Xfinity Center.

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“We won’t ever know,” Frese said the next day, reflecting on what her players lost when COVID-19 killed March Madness.

In another locker room in the same building, men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon processed a similar sense of loss with his team, which had clinched a share of the Big Ten regular-season crown. “Devastating,” he said that evening on ESPN.

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All around the country that second week in March, teams and athletes with connections to the Baltimore area confronted existential uncertainty and dread. As basketball and lacrosse seasons went dark and the Orioles halted their spring preparations in Florida, we had no idea if there would be more games in 2020.

Would the infield at Pimlico Race Course stand barren on the third Saturday in May? Would Lamar Jackson and the Ravens have a chance to improve on their second-round playoff exit? Would high school athletes find any closure on experiences of growth and bonding that had defined their young lives?

COVID-19 seized these narratives and left us grasping for answers.

Nine months later, with the calendar about to turn and vaccines offering hope for a better 2021, we can say the pandemic did not eradicate the year in Baltimore sports but altered it in ways we won’t soon forget.

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The Orioles played a 33-game home schedule without a single fan passing through the gates at Camden Yards. The Ravens faced the Pittsburgh Steelers on a Wednesday afternoon after a COVID-19 outbreak shredded their roster and their schedule. The 145th Preakness was run in October, as the third leg in the Triple Crown series. Army and Navy renewed their venerable football rivalry at West Point, the first time the game was played in an on-campus stadium since 1943.

University of Maryland athletes endured a chaotic restart marked by canceled games and halted practices. At smaller universities such as Morgan State, Towson and Loyola, fall sports did not return at all. Many high school athletes are still waiting to play their first competitive games since March.

UMBC athletic director Brian Barrio compared the entire experience to building a house on quicksand.

Ravens players expressed serious misgivings as the team’s reserve/COVID-19 list mushroomed to 23 while a strength and conditioning coach was punished for failing to follow the NFL’s pandemic protocols.

“I think the main thing that needs to be put in perspective is this isn’t just about football. This is about guys’ families,” said quarterback Robert Griffin III, who stepped in for Jackson to start the thrice-rescheduled Steelers game. “This is about their wives and their children and anybody else that is in close contact with them at home. So, when we get a call saying that one of our players is positive, a million things run through your mind. It’s not whether you’re going to be able to play or whether you test positive, it’s a matter of, ‘Is this going to affect my family?’”

The Ravens closed 2020 in the midst of a more traditional drama as they tried to fight their way back into the playoffs. But for a few days, their plight had fans wondering if it made sense for the NFL to cram a season in as COVID-19 cases spiked from coast to coast.

The Orioles had faced similar uncertainty in July, when an outbreak on the Miami Marlins sent them home from South Florida without playing a game in a scheduled early-season series. The New York Yankees subbed in for the home opener at Camden Yards as Major League Baseball’s calendar began to resemble a first grade arts-and-crafts project.

“I was following the reports along with everybody else,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said at the time. “It’s not easy to not know, so we’re just hanging around not knowing what’s going on. … I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s definitely an uneasy feeling.”

A new normal set in for the teams that played on, one of virtual meetings, masked coaches and daily nasal swabs.

There were still stories that had little to do with the pandemic — a colon cancer diagnosis for Orioles slugger Trey Mancini, the Ravens’ bold call for police reform after the murder of George Floyd, poignant reactions to the death of 14-year-old superfan Mo Gaba.

But it was hard to watch a game without feeling the absence of normality.

At the Oct. 3 Preakness, where 130,000 spectators usually crowd the infield and choke surrounding streets, quiet pervaded.

“There’s no vibe, nothing,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert observed. “It’s the crowd that gets you pumped up.”

Only a few connections and track workers were there to cheer when an indefatigable filly named Swiss Skydiver outdueled Baffert’s Kentucky Derby champion, Authentic.

A similar void of atmosphere greeted Jackson at M&T Bank Stadium when he tossed three touchdown passes in the Ravens’ season-opening victory over the Cleveland Browns. With the usual crowd of 70,000 absent, he and his teammates could hear every word defenders said across the line of scrimmage.

“It’s just different,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “You’ve got to bring your own energy.”

At Navy and Maryland, the two area universities that played football this fall, players and coaches balanced the joy of competing with the perpetual uncertainty created by virus outbreaks on campus after campus.

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Maryland lived in limbo as Big Ten officials waffled on their plans, ultimately agreeing on an abbreviated schedule that began the penultimate weekend of October. Head coach Mike Locksley subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.

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“We knew going in and I think all of us — whether it’s the Big Ten and all the other Power Five conferences — understood what we were getting into when we made the decision to play,” he said, laying out the grim calculus necessary to push forward.

The Midshipmen, meanwhile, saw three straight games canceled in November. “It’s 2020, man,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “You deal with the circumstances as they come and keep pressing forward.”

The economic toll — from tickets that could not be sold, television deals that could not be fulfilled, bars and restaurants that could not do game-day business — remains to be calculated. But we learned players, coaches and fans would endure significant risks to keep sports alive and at the center of our culture.

As a new year approached, Frese and Turgeon were back on the sideline, picking up the pieces from those seasons they had to abandon in March.

“We’ll never get over it,” Turgeon said.

But there were games to prepare for.

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