A Spring Without South Jersey High School Sports
The grass in front of lacrosse goals is lush and green, not worn down by the cleats of South Jersey goalies. Baseball and softball fields across the state sit silently, waiting patiently for the familiar ping sound of ball meeting aluminum bat. Hurdles are stacked neatly to the side of area tracks, no teenage athletes leaping over them. Tennis courts are vacant, and the tee boxes at local golf courses remain untouched.
There is an eerie silence that envelops high school athletic facilities, as athletes go through home workouts provided by their coaches, hoping that something of the 2020 spring sports season can be salvaged. But hope is quickly turning to despair in the age of Covid-19, the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the world and led to more than 46,000 deaths in the United States. Safety is the No. 1 priority for everyone right now, and coaches, athletes, parents, fans, media, athletic directors — everyone understands the magnitude of what we are going through as a nation, and world — but still, everyone who loves high school sports is longing, desperately, for the day when competition returns. It may not happen at all this spring, and at this point nobody knows how the fall season might be impacted by a disease that is ravaging countries throughout the globe.
Everyone is dealing with the situation as best they can, and the toughest thing may be that there are no answers to be had at the moment. The state of New Jersey has ordered schools to be closed until at least May 15, and perhaps longer. We’ll just have to wait and see.
“It’s kind of surreal for all of us right now. First and foremost, our seniors — I feel terrible for them with what’s going on and the potential loss of their season. We built this team for this year, as we always do, and we had high expectations. In the short time we were together in early March, I could really see the makings of what it takes to be a state championship team,” said St. Augustine Prep baseball coach Mike Bylone, who led the Hermits to a state championship game berth in 2019. “If we’re not able to have a chance to fulfill that it will be a shame and my heart goes out to our guys and all the seniors on the local teams. Personally, it’s weird. This is the first time in 17 years I’m not hitting fungoes in April. It’s just crazy, but you just have to sit back and think that we have to be careful and this is something we’re not used to, and I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I hope something good can come out of all of this.
“It was Friday, March 13 and we were getting ready to go scrimmage Highland, and we got the message they were shutting everything down,” he added. “That’s when it all started, and we didn’t think it was going to come to this. But as the days went on it started getting more serious.”
The situation has been especially tough on seniors, most of whom will not be continuing their athletic careers at the collegiate level.
“It’s hard to wrap your head around the whole idea that this is mandatory and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a sad situation. Ever since freshmen year, and even before that, you dream about your senior game and walking out onto the field with your parents, having your name called and all that. And now it’s taken away from you. It’s sad, but at the same time, we need to be in quarantine,” said Holy Spirit senior Lauren Mevoli, a goalie on the field hockey and lacrosse teams who hopes to continue playing lacrosse at Stockton University. “I get these weird feelings that something bad is going to happen, and ever since the beginning of preseason I felt that something bad was going to happen, like we weren’t going to have our senior game. I just had this feeling that something was going to happen. Everybody was like, ‘why are you being so negative?’ But I just felt something didn’t feel right. This year, something is off, and I just had this feeling. And now everything is shut down and we’re in quarantine. That’s what that bad feeling was.”
Athletic directors and coaches have done their best to continue to crank out positive messaging, knowing it’s a difficult time, mentally and emotionally, for all the athletes.
“Our baseball team, in particular, I feel terrible for the kids, they were looking forward to this season so much. They were ready to go and they were looking pretty good. I would highly doubt there will be a season at this point. As the Cape-Atlantic League we’ve done numerous zoom meetings, we’ve redone the schedule with a May 1 deadline and now it’s pushed back to May 15. We’re just waiting to hear what the state says at this point. I feel terrible for all our kids,” said Mike McGhee, athletic director at Cedar Creek. “It’s a tough job but our spring coaches are giving motivational tips to the kids each day, giving them home workouts, they’re checking in with them. Our softball coach, Shawn Cohen, has done pretty much a virtual softball schedule. So he has the girls still playing in their heads, how they batted the day before — he has a whole thing, like it’s windy today, it’s a little rainy, we have Oakcrest at 4 p.m., the wind is blowing in. He has a whole virtual schedule going on with them right now. None of us have ever been through something like this before and we have kids who are just devastated, but they also see the big picture and that’s the message we tried to explain to them. Everything we’ve tried to teach them athletically over the years, you can use those skills and lessons right now when we’re dealing with adversity. It’s something we all have to deal with, unfortunately.”
Back in February, this spring season promised some great storylines. In baseball, many teams were loaded with talented pitching staffs, including St. Augustine Prep, Mainland, Ocean City and Cedar Creek. The Pirates, in particular, have at least three pitchers who throw 90+ miles per hour and were coming off their best season ever, one that included a trip to the South Jersey Group 2 championship game. In softball, Oakcrest was looking to build on a solid 2019 campaign, Ocean City was fresh off a sectional semifinals appearance, EHT was eager to see what it could do after the departure of highly successful coach Mary Dunlap, and Mainland’s Bella Canesi was poised to build off one of the best freshman seasons we’ve seen in the Cape-Atlantic League in a long while. And Ocean City senior Abbey Fenton — who has won more championship trophies than most athletes in school history — was set to close our her incredible three-sport career on the lacrosse field. Not to mention all the impressive track, tennis, golf and crew performances we were sure to see.
And there are all the other things that go along with closing out a high school career, the special moments like prom and graduation, that may be missed this spring.
Despite the disappointment, however, everyone seems to be keeping up as positive an attitude as is possible in a situation like the one we all are facing.
“I am planning on playing lacrosse in college. Even though it’s sad we’re not having our senior season, at least I can play next year, or if I don’t make the team there’s always club lacrosse. It’s sad, but it’s not the end of the world, that’s what I keep thinking,” Mevoli said. “Luckily, I went to prom last year. It is sad that we might not have a prom this year. But I always think in my head, there are those people who never get to go to prom or play a sport, so they never get to experience these things. So, I am privileged. Yes, it’s sad, but it’s not the end of the world. They’ll end up doing some kind of graduation when (the lockdown) is lifted. It’s not the end of the world, you just have to keep pushing through it. Safety is always first.”
“In particular, at our school, we’re throwing around some ideas. From the Cape-Atlantic League standpoint, we’ve reached out to the Shore Conference and talked about all-stars, maybe senior all-stars — if we get back into school for a few weeks can we do a senior all-star game for the kids? We did a mock schedule with a 6-game season just to give the kids something,” McGhee said. “I know the discussion in the state has been can we go into the summer? You have the non-publics closing down earlier than the public schools. We’re spitballing a lot of ideas, but until we can get any confirmation — we have a lot of ideas to try to put something together for these kids. And everything, the prom, graduation, they’re missing out on a lot of things and my heart goes out to them.”
The toughest thing for administrators and coaches is not being able to tell their athletes, definitively, what is going to happen in the next six-to-eight weeks.
“(The hardest thing is) just trying to give kids answers. I’ll get messages, ‘do you think we’ll have a season, Mr. McGhee?’ And my answer is, ‘keep your fingers crossed.’ Just me not being able to tell them an emphatic yes or no and being able to deliver a direct message is the part I’m dealing with the most,” McGhee said. “I’d like to be able to tell them this is our plan, but this is such a fluid situation, and it’s bigger than sports. We’re part of the Positive Coaching Association and we’ve tried to deliver stuff to them. Herman Edwards spoke recently, different things of that nature. They do really good podcasts for the kids, dealing with the disappointment. They have free parent workshops about parenting in the age of disappointment and helping your teen get through the loss of spring sports, and they do a phenomenal job.”
“I’m kind of a dinosaur when it comes to social media, but I’ve been emailing the guys and giving them updates. Our athletic director, Mike Rizzo, is great with keeping our spring coaches up to date with what the state is doing and I just reiterate that to my coaches and our players throughout the whole program. There really are no answers right now. I can send all the emails in the world but right now it’s wait-and-see. Our school is going to be closed for the remainder of the year and my phone has been getting blown up with questions about whether our season is over, and I just don’t have any answers. We just have to keep the guys working out and staying safe,” Bylone added. “This is really killing me because I’m a baseball lifer. I have my job to get my mind off things, but I just feel bad for the kids. It’s all about the kids and you hate to see them lose a season, but this kind of puts things into perspective. But every day at 3:45 p.m. I have goose bumps thinking about standing at home plate and handing in my lineup card. I’ve been doing this for quite a long time — this has been my life — and it’s tough.”
The statewide lockdown has left everyone antsy and eager to get back to normal life, but Mevoli said she hopes that years down the road missing a sports season will be worth it if lives can be saved.
“I think we’re all just going to look back on it and be like, ‘wow, that was such a strange time period,’” she said. “I heard on the news that when we look back on this, I hope we think we were overprepared instead of underprepared. That’s a good thing.”