Giving Back: Area athletes play the recovery gameAdam Caira / Staff photo
Sue Duprat, the Harwood athletic director, stands on Dac Rowe Field. The entire recreation park was wiped out by Irene. Duprat helped the sports schedules back online, as well as made sure many of her student-athletes were getting the help they needed.
The only thing the chain-link backstop at Harwood Union High School’s softball field at Dac Rowe Fields stopped on Aug. 28, 2011, was the infield, and even then the structure more resembled a giant collander.
The only way to tell the plot was supposed to be a softball field were pegs in the ground marking the bases, the battered dugouts slanted up what used to be baselines and the aforementioned backstop, with mud and grass clinging to its links. It as a far cry from the neon-yellow softballs that normally slam-clink off it on a rare Highlander passed ball.
Harwood Athletic Director Sue Duprat honestly didn’t think about the condition of her school’s field, part of a larger community recreation park on North Main Street in Waterbury, during and immediately after Tropical Storm Irene left her mark on the Highlanders’ hometown.
“On Sunday when we were getting Facebook messages, texts and emails about how bad things were, you’re thinking of people, not places,” she said. “Later, it was, ‘Holy crap, we don’t have a softball field!’ But on a scale of 1-10, it was a -100 on a scale of ‘Who cares?’ It was three weeks into recovery that we got a call from the town saying we might want to look for other options.”
Fall sports had started just before the storm and Duprat’s main concern, sports-wise, was alerting coaches and athletes of cancelled practices and optional practices. She knew those who were able were taking their teams out to help around town.
“If we’re not teaching more than how to slide, kick the ball, hit the ball, shoot the ball, sports do not belong in schools,” Duprat said. “We really do believe it. Our kids are watching great coaches lead by example, learning life lessons. Our coaches are good at that. You’re going to give back because you can and are more capable than other people. The grandmother getting her basement cleaned out by soccer players might not know that’s what it was, but she saw that there are great kids out there. We don’t prepare you for when things go right, we prepare you for when things go to heck in a hand-basket.”
The boys soccer team helped dig mud out of basements. The girls soccer team performed similar service, and the cross-country team was busy helping one of its own.
“They didn’t think of it as volunteering, they thought of it as the next thing on the list,” Duprat said of the student-athletes she works closely with every day of the academic calendar. “Everybody felt it was their town, their place, their friends, their family. It was more like, ‘How do we stop these kids from being in dangerous situations?’”
Perhaps a bigger task was how to explain the seemingly random act of such sudden, violent, life-altering destruction.
“Most kids didn’t have anything to compare it to,” Duprat said, reflecting on the fact that adults can relate the sadness and powerlessness of the events of last August to the tragedies of history, namely Sept. 11, 2001, which many current students are familiar with only because of documentary footage.
“They may have had a personal tragedy, but we had a bunch of youngsters who are looking at heartache and heartbreak about stuff they really couldn’t control,” she said. “You feel powerless. These are kids who’ve lost their home, their parents probably lost their job, and they don’t have anything to compare it against.”
Duprat felt the closest correlation was 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which Vermonters watched from dry living rooms.
“Donating clothes or money or time, there was something we could do to make us feel better, but it was still removed,” she said. “Now we’re taking those kids and putting them into sports programs. There is great sports myth out there that playing sports relieves pressure and stress. But competition magnifies it. Kids are amazingly resilient and resourceful. But for those who had such loss with Irene, you had to ask, ‘How did you manage that?’ It’s because the coaches cared.”
And Duprat cared.
Because rescheduling games and shifting practice schedules is all part of a day’s work for a high school athletic director, Duprat was able to quickly navigate those situations to devote more time to helping her greater school community.
“There was a kid I saw in school, and I would check in with him,” she said. “I asked him if he was OK, and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, everything’s great.’ Turns out, his whole entire first floor is gone, and they’re living in a camper in the yard.”
The student was a member of the cross-country team. His bedroom was on the second floor, so his personal belongings were dry, but he family lost everything on the first floor. His teammates rallied around him.
“A lot of our kids were significantly impacted,” Duprat said. “The stories are countless. It’s more like, which of the kids weren’t involved?”
And it wasn’t just athletes Duprat and the athletic department were thinking of in the wake of the historic storm.
“The tough part was all the stuff that had nothing to do with sports,” Duprat said. “If kids were displaced, or technically homeless or living with grandma, they qualify for free or reduced lunch. We wanted to identify as many of those kids as possible, which is a hard thing for kids and parents to (speak up for). We needed to make sure kids were being taken care of and not just telling us they were.”
So she helped spread the word, grapevine-style, by having her coaches talk to their athletes, who talked to their peers, so no one’s pride was bruised.
And ironically, the students didn’t want the opposite, either.
“How do you single out any one or two or 20 or 100 kids?” Duprat said. “They weren’t going to leave a calling card that said, ‘Hey, this was me who helped.’ It didn’t matter, there was nobody looking to get credit. It wasn’t about that or would ever be about that.”
But it was about giving students a place where life was as normal as possible.
“You do something you can control,” she said. “And sports did that for us. We didn’t have to dig out our school, we didn’t lose all our fields and equipment like other schools did, and we’re so thankful for that. But we had something to offer these kids as a kind of sanctuary, something that was predictable and that they understood.”
The Harwood campus was relatively spared, with the cross-country trails taking an additional hit from the blow struck by the May flooding.
But Duprat – and the Highlander softball team — heard the tick, tick, tick of the countdown to a spring season with no field to call home.
“The trails didn’t put us out of business, but the softball field would put us out of business,” Duprat said. “There were no other fields (in the Waterbury area). We had conversations about if we could do anything on campus, but can’t you build a softball field on campus in a couple months.”
Other schools offered their fields — Montpelier has not fielded a softball team in a handful of seasons but offered the diamond it still has behind the school — and ultimately Harwood elected to play all of the 2012 softball season on the road.
But still, that solution didn’t feel so good. The Highlanders wanted to be home.
“On top of everything, we find out our softball coach has terminal cancer and no field. It magnified our sense of urgency,” Duprat said.
The town of Waterbury was far enough ahead on recovery efforts to focus on Rowe Field, leaving the place looking better than brand-new in time for the final few games of the regular season.
Those games proved to be the last for longtime softball coach Fred Larock, who passed away on June 25. Both Larock and Dascomb “Dac” Rowe, the late longtime Waterbury High School principal and coach for which the field is named, were part of the class inducted into the Harwood Hall of Fame this spring.
“When we get the call that they thought we’d be able to play, oh, it was like the sky opening,” Duprat said. “We’re going to let Fred go home for a couple of days. It had nothing to do with softball, it was amazing that we were that far into recovery to think about a softball field.”
And while many may think the connection between sports and Irene is a soft one, if they think there’s one at all, Duprat does not agree.
“Sports is (thought of as) America’s coffee break,” she said. “We’re going to talk about the Red Sox, the Giants, the perfect game from last night, Thunder Road. And from the outside that’s fine. But from the inside it’s so much more than that. You get to deal with kids on a level no one else can and help them understand what they went through, how they can use their skills and experience to make them better people. They can use that whether there’s a disaster or not.”
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