Last week, student athletes from around Minnesota finally got the news they have been dreading after weeks of canceled practices and games. On March 15, the spring sports season was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with school and school activities canceled until March 27 (and order that was eventually extended to May 4). There was hope the spring sports season would eventually happen, but then on April 23, it was announced that school and school activities would be canceled for the remainder of the school year, effectively ending all spring sports for 2020.
“I think the kids have kind of expected it, but there has been this hope,” Mayer Lutheran athletic director and softball coach Kris Gustin said.
Last Thursday, the Minnesota State High School League released a press release saying that in response to Executive Order 20-41 [issued April 23] by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, the Minnesota State High School League, under direction of the League’s Board of Directors, declared all activities and athletics that occur during the spring season have been cancelled for the 2019-2020 school year. The decision of the League is aligned with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Minnesota Department of Health and is in support of practices that focus on community health and safety.
The order dashed the hopes of teams looking to get outside and on the field to participate in the sports they love.
“This is what baseball coaches, softball coaches, track coaches look forward to and for the kids its the same way,” Central baseball coach Jon Wroge said. “It’s something you cant describe because it’s like you got your gut kicked in.”
Many student athletes were still planning on competing this season and were finding creative ways to workout under the stay at home order in place across the state. Then the coaches had to deliver the tough news to the kids still holding out hope they could get back out on the field this spring. Waconia baseball coach Mark Grundhofer told his players midway through a Zoom workout video that the season had just been canceled.
“You could just see in their faces, it was just awful,” Grundhofer said.
While sports will eventually make a comeback, that is of little solace to the senior class.
“It’s something none of us are going to get back,” Gustin said of the canceled season. “If you’re a junior or a sophomore, you get next year, but these seniors don’t get that.”
The Central baseball team was heading into the season with two college-bound senior pitchers who stifled ranked teams last season, and were flanked by several seniors looking to step into the spotlight.
“These guys have been in the program biding their time, thinking this year, ‘This is my shot, this is where I get to do it,’ and now that’s snatched away,” Wroge said. “I try to think how I would have felt about it if I were a senior, I would have been devastated.”
The Watertown-Mayer baseball players were competing to see who could do the most sit-ups, push-ups, squats and skaters throughout the month, when their dream season that included a large senior class and several college-bound athletes also ended. They are still continuing to put in the work however, as there is still a chance for summer baseball.
“It isn’t completely over at this point,” Royals baseball coach Ryan Trucke said. “About 10-12 of our players could play town ball. They’re still planning on playing summer ball at some point.”
Heading into March, a lot of players and teams thought this would be their season. Years of work went into getting onto the varsity team, and for these seniors, they don’t get the chance to prove this was the year. Grundhofer gets teary-eyed just thinking about all of the seniors missing out on their opportunity.
“I’ve been working with them since they were 5 years old,” he said.
And what makes it more difficult, is that they are not only missing out on their chance to compete, but their chance to interact with each other, as practices and school have both been shut down.
“In other years when we’ve had bad springs, but atleast we had practice,” Grundhofer said. “These days go by so slow.”
When thinking about the larger picture of how much the COVID-19 crisis has upended life across the world, sports may pale in comparison. But sports mean much more to people than just the seven innings at a high school baseball or softball game, the 18 holes on the golf course or the dozens of events at a track and field meet.
“Sports are a part of the fabric of our society,” Gustin said. “[The kids] want a semblance of normality - seeing friends, to be in school and enjoy the activities they love.”
And with the ever-changing news and guidelines coming with this unprecedented time, the question of when we will return to normal remains up in the air.
“The worst part is that you have no control over it,” Trucke said. “With an injury, you have some sort of control, you can control rehab and work to get back, but with this, you have no control.”
Spring sports are officially canceled, but when do sports start making their way back into our lives?
“I really don’t want to [think about that], but it’s at the back of my mind,” Gustin said. “Are we going to have summer tournaments? How are fall sports going to look? All of those things are swirling in the mind. Unfortunately it’s a game of wait and see.”
And while teams across the state are experiencing the loss of practice time, there still are sure to be ripples from this year that impact the seasons to come.
“The senior class shows [others] the ropes, how to lead, how we do things and they didn’t get a chance to show the juniors,” Grundhofer said.
In an time defined by social distancing, it can be the emotional distance that is felt the most.
“Without school and sports, [the seniors] are not able to get to say goodbye to their buddies,” Wroge said. “That’s really hard.”