As the new fall season of sports kicks off in the Merrimack Valley, coaches and athletes are coasting through tryouts, practices and games free from disruption — unlike last fall.

On Sept. 13, 2018, sports games were halted and visiting players bused back to their hometowns when disaster struck Lawrence, Andover and North Andover during the peak hour of after-school activities.

Athletic Director Bill Martin said Andover was fortunate that the sports seasons weren’t majorly impacted. His teams only had to cancel activities for the following weekend and postpone them to later dates in the fall.

A girls’ soccer game, football practice and a swim meet held at Greater Lawrence Technical School were all taking place at the time of the explosions caused by overpressurized gas lines operated by Columbia Gas.

Martin said as soon as officials received word of what was happening, all three events were postponed.

North Andover Athletic Director Laura Habacker said her community was just as fortunate, with no major impact aside from the initial day.

In Lawrence, however, the community hit hardest by the disaster, members of the tennis teams had to adjust to unfamiliarity as they were forced to play on foreign courts for the entire season after losing the ones they called home.

After a frantic search for space to park hundreds of trailers to house families displaced by the gas disaster, the city took over the tennis courts at Sullivan Park. They would remain there until November, when services were restored and people began to return home.

While families slowly recovered from the destruction, the six asphalt courts were ruined by the crushing weight of the trailers and had gaping holes from where fencing was ripped.

The tennis team had no home matches. Athletes practiced at the South Lawrence East Middle School courts, which don’t have nets.

They sometimes practiced at the one functioning court left in the city over at Riverside Park.

Knowing they were in a tough situation finding spots to play, Martin said Lawrence’s team played a couple matches at Andover High School. It was one example of the importance of community that would be trailed by dozens of other acts of strength and unity in the months-long recovery.

“We hosted them in the matches we had against them, even if they were supposed to be at their place,” Martin said.

The six tennis courts and two basketball courts at Sullivan Park have been rebuilt, complete with bright, white nets and fresh paint jobs.

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said the cost of renovating both Sullivan and South Common parks totaled about $2.8 million. He said the money to pay for the courts and the South Common fields came from the $81 million Columbia Gas paid the city for infrastructure work, including parks and playgrounds affected by the gas explosions, as well as roads and sidewalks.

The cracked pavement and gaping holes are now distant memories for the players, whose long-awaited return to their home courts has finally come to fruition.

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