BRISTOL - As expected, Tuesday afternoonâ€™s boys soccer game between rivals Bristol Central and Bristol Eastern carried the same intensity on the field that the biannual clash normally produces, but the aesthetics of the experience bordered on the bizarre.
Of course, in a unique season such as the 2020 fall sports campaign, different should be expected. But it was still difficult to ignore.
First, there was the crowd, narrowed down to roughly 50 total spectators due to Bristol Easternâ€™s covid-19 precautions that include allowing only two family members per player at the game, and no visiting fans. Normally, an Eastern-Central bout would easily pack the bleachers, produce a raucous student section and provide a sea of painted faces to give the home team as much of an advantage as possible. This year, the fans did the best they could with what they had, but in the midst of a pandemic, it was hard to recreate normalcy.
â€śIt was a little different,â€ť said Eastern head coach Bill Sweet, who has seen more than 100 Eastern-Central games during his time at the helm. â€śBut we had the street and cars going by, so at least there was some activity. At least we had some excitement.â€ť
That street was King Street, normally far away from the soccer games at Easternâ€™s turf field. But another added wrinkle to the first edition of this yearâ€™s rivalry game was the venue itself, which was moved from the turf field to the front of the school aside King Street. The turf field at Eastern still needs fixing and is still deemed unplayable. A passerby without that knowledge could have driven through the parking lot of Bristol Eastern High School and saw an empty stadium on a day where the seats would have normally been packed to the brim. Instead, cars parked in the small lot along one of the front fieldâ€™s sidelines and the limited amount of fans watched from lawn chairs or the trunks of their vehicles.
â€śThis game went from being played at Muzzy Field to the turf field under the lights, except last year with EEE we played after school,â€ť Central head coach Nate Jandreau said. â€śItâ€™s not that the grass field is bad, but itâ€™s just different. You never play on this field when weâ€™re playing them.â€ť
The game was initially going to be moved to the Bristol Soccer Club in an effort to help the venue match the stakes of the game, but it returned to Easternâ€™s makeshift field, which certainly impacted a vibe that had already been drastically altered given circumstances out of the teamsâ€™ control.
â€śItâ€™s not at night, itâ€™s not on turf and there arenâ€™t as much fans here,â€ť Centralâ€™s Beckett Hennessey said. â€śI donâ€™t know if it affected us, but we didnâ€™t come out as hard as we usually would. We came out flat and got punished for it.â€ť
That flat start for the Rams contributed to another unfamiliar sight from this usually tension-packed rivalry. For the first time in the past seven games, the match was decided by more than one goal. The 4-1 win for the Lancers matched the most lopsided victory for either school against each other since 2016. Just after the Rams pulled to within one in the second half, the Lancers responded and later put the game completely out of reach, which comes a year after both matchups resulted in overtime periods.
â€śSix games over the last four years, theyâ€™ve beat us in overtime or in the final two minutes, or we tied,â€ť Jandreau said. â€śSo itâ€™s strange.â€ť
On Easternâ€™s side, the Lancers looked to treat the always-anticipated clash as any other game. Perhaps that helped tune out the glaring differences that made this battle look much different from all of its predecessors. From the crowd to the field and the final score, it wasnâ€™t a typical Eastern-Central soccer game, but the one remaining similarity was the winner, which was the Lancers, who havenâ€™t lost to the Rams in their last seven tries.
For the players, that was all that mattered, even if it was played in front of a considerably smaller crowd on a downgraded playing field.
â€śThe crowd never gets in our way,â€ť Easternâ€™s Dominik Femiak said after scoring two goals. â€śOur coaches donâ€™t allow that. Theyâ€™re our rivals, but at the end of the day, itâ€™s just another game. We had to push through and get the win.â€ť
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or email@example.com