They say hope springs eternal, and nowhere is that truer than the beginning of the high school sports season — particularly in Maine, and particularly in the spring.

The sun is warmer, the grass is turning green, and players run out onto the field with nothing but optimism for the games ahead.

That optimism takes on new meaning this year, as teams begin to play for the first time in two years, after COVID-19 canceled all play starting last April. Spring high school sports was one of the first casualties of the pandemic, and its return is a hopeful sign that we’ve passed through the worst of it.

Players and coaches are going through some version of what we all will experience soon. They are returning to the game they know and love, on the fields and courts they know well, but a lot has changed that they’ll have to cope with.

With the 2020 season canceled, teams have more players with little or no varsity experience, putting a premium on fundamentals, and making it difficult to tell what each matchup will bring. Players will be rusty, for sure. Coaches will have to work harder to bring together teammates who don’t know each other as well as in years past.

And while they are back on the field, COVID still looms large, just as it will for all of us even as we start to move around more

Team schedules have been changed to cut down on travel. Leagues are finding game officials hard to come by, in part because of COVID-19. Coaches will have to juggle pitching staffs and ask for more flexibility out their players, since they never know when they’ll lose a player to illness or quarantine.

Likewise, coaches and players know that an outbreak could put a pause on their season, even end it, at any time.

And that’s the thing: These games don’t happen in a vacuum. An outbreak in the wider community can easily find its way to a team or into a school, and put an end to the games.

That’s the lesson for all of us. If you want high school sports, or in-person learning, or the lifting of restrictions on restaurants and bars, you have to do your part to minimize the outbreaks that make them unsafe. That means getting your vaccination as soon as possible, and otherwise taking precautions to lower the spread of the virus, such as distancing and wearing a mask.

The virus is still out there. Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston just set its record for hospitalizations. Somerset County, which has the lowest rate of residents who have received their first shot of vaccine, recently saw its highest single-day number of cases, causing staff shortages that closed schools.

But there is good news, too. A lot of it. More than a third of Maine residents are fully vaccinated now. The weather is warming — we can look forward to a summer, when it becomes easier for everyone to fight the virus.

And we can watch high school athletes return to the field after so long off.

It’s a great feeling. How much we have of it in the coming months is up to us.

Reprinted from The Portland Press Herald.