March 23, 2020.

Close plays at the plate will not be on the table this spring in high school baseball. (Photo: Bill Turner

The day high school athletes across Virginia felt the ball drop. Their much anticipated spring sports season, especially for seniors, had been canceled.

Early that Monday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced that all schools in the commonwealth would remain closed until the end of the academic year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Approximately ninety minutes afterward, the Virginia High School League followed suit and announced that all spring sports and activities, including practices, were canceled.

“We need to support our Governor and State Superintendent,” VHSL Executive Director John W. “Billy” Haun said in a news release. “These actions were taken to protect Virginians, keep them safe and healthy, and to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.”

“Our Crisis Management team is made up of excellent school representatives and has been vital in all deliberations regarding COVID-19,” Haun added. “In every situation, every decision we make has been, and will be, in the best interest of public health, including that of, most importantly, our student-athletes, coaches, administrators, families ¬†and fans.”

There had been clear cut omens this might be in the cards for the spring sports players of softball, baseball, lacrosse,  outdoor track, tennis and soccer.

Ten days earlier, as the top 24 high school basketball teams in the state, 12 girls teams and 12 boys teams, were preparing to play state championship finals at the VCU Siegel Center in Richmond over a three-day period, the plug was pulled on the tournament. One of the Thursday Class 2 games had already been played with a champion crowned. Another was underway, but completed. Other teams that were set to take the court later Thursday night for warm-ups realized things were rapidly changing as vendors started closing up and the word trickled down into the arena. No more games. Teams in Class 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 would be declared co-champions.

For a short time on Thursday morning, the consideration was made to limit those attending the basketball championships to only teams, officials, refs and immediate family members of players, coaches and school officials. No other spectators would be allowed.

Team instruction, like this by Cave Spring head baseball coach Ricky Lonker, will be missed by high school players, as fields, tracks and courts will be empty this spring. (Photo: Bill Turner.)

VHSL Associate Director Tom Dolan said the league thought it had a “good window” to get the games in, but the situation changed rapidly after the NBA canceled games and college conferences began canceling their tournaments in rapid succession.

“As the landscape changed during to day, and college tournaments started to fall and spring sports for many of the colleges were suspended, we didn’t feel it was appropriate for us (the VHSL) to be up above that level of concern,” Dolan pointed out. “So we made the decision to end the (basketball) championships. That’s not what we wanted to do because it’s unfortunate for a lot of young people.”

The VHSL initially pushed back the beginning of its spring seasons to March 30th, with no team activities occurring during a two-week period. But, as more and more leagues, college and professional, canceled their seasons, the VHSL followed suit with spring sports on March 23.

Unfortunately, that left the thousands of high school athletes who had trained and prepared for the various spring sports facing a void. As hours passed, other realities sank in, especially for seniors.

That special final season would not occur. No senior day to celebrate years of hard work. Not taking the field to play with their teammates. And, for most seniors who would not be moving on to play at the college level, a missed opportunity to put on their uniform one last time in competition.

Even the greatest high school coach or athletic director couldn’t come up with a locker room speech that would make this better. Saying “we love our seniors” or “thank you for everything you’ve done for your school’s athletics” was a good start but hardly enough to address this unique situation and letdown.

Initially, the VHSL considered extending the spring sports seasons into the summer with some form of championships still in the mix. But, by April 8th, the VHSL released additional information that made that idea nearly impossible, although the consideration had not totally been eliminated.

Among those obstacles were eligibility after graduation, semester waivers, when the pandemic crisis would actually ease, reinstating student physicals, school student insurance riders and its cost, summer travel teams, family vacations and early college enrollment for high school seniors.

For returning underclassmen and girls, the first practice for fall sports in football and golf is scheduled for July 30. Cross country and volleyball, August 3. Even typical summer camps and open gyms for numerous sports is totally up in the air until a normal routine is restored.

Three local “Big-11” spring sport athletes reflected what had fallen out of the sky on their canceled season during phone interviews in the last 10 days.

Meredith Wells, senior star pitcher on the Lord Botetourt softball team offered a three-word summary: “I was devastated,” Wells noted without hesitation.

Wells had also been a member of the Lord Botetourt girls basketball team that was set to play for the Class 3 state championship at VCU on Friday, the second day of the tournament.

“First, it was our basketball team. Then, spring sports. For me it was a double whammy. You think about all that hard work and not being able to play in front of your family. I was shocked.”

“The mood among spring sports athletes at Botetourt has been tough,” Wells, who has a softball scholarship waiting at James Madison University, added. “Most know they’ll never get to put on the uniform again. Probably 85% of high school seniors will not go on to play in college. At least, I know I do get to play again.”

“I’m still working extra hard to get ready for JMU even though there will be no senior season at LB. I have a workout plan and I share videos with the JMU coaches to get feedback. Hopefully, my travel softball will stay on track to offer the opportunity to work in game situations this summer.

All-State pitcher Abby Weaver will miss her senior softball season canceled by COVID-19. (Bill Turner photos)

Abby Weaver, an All-State pitcher at Cave Spring, echoed Wells sentiments.

“I was extremely sad when I first heard the news,” Weaver noted. “I cried a little.”

“We had played three scrimmages and all I wanted was to have our team together one last year. We only had two seniors, and both are going on to play in college. Still, the school is shut down and I’ll miss out on senior day. One of my teammates was dedicating this season to her Dad who had passed away, and I was dedicating my season to one of my greatest teachers at Cave Spring, Ashley Huray, who died from cancer in January. That [opportunity] will be missed.”

Weaver will be playing softball for the University of Virginia, where she will change positions from All-State pitcher to infielder. She is scheduled to report to UVa on July 13th.

“I’m spending my time working on being an infielder,” Weaver explained. “I have workouts with lifting and conditioning. Monday-Wednesday-Friday I get on ZOOM for instruction. At UVA you know your role. I’m working hard on hitting with my Dad (Jim Weaver). He’s a pretty good pitcher and knows the game. I take it all very seriously. I’m disappointed with my senior season being eliminated, but I believe in the statement ‘you can only control the controllable.’ ”

Cave Spring’s Jalen Buster, a senior on the school’s baseball team who will play for Radford University next season, took a more philosophical approach.

“I was really looking forward to my senior season at Cave Spring. Yes, I’m disappointed, but it’s out of my control, so I’m not going to pout about it.” “I’m hitting every day and practicing. Trying to focus on staying constant. I keep in contact with Radford, and when I get there they’ll evaluate where you’re at.”

Buster, who will head to Radford on June 26th, had a little padding for his letdown. He was the floor leader for the Cave Spring basketball team that won the Class 3 state championship in March, and was named Class 3 Player of the Year by the VHSL, along with his head coach, Jacob Gruse, who was named Class 3 Coach of the Year, and two teammates who also made All-State teams.

One can only hope that one day somehow the schools can make some of this up. When it comes to everything the players enjoy in the spring time; senior day, prom, awards ceremonies and everything these athletes have worked on for years of their life. Hopefully everyone will find a way to do the best possible to give each player the recognition they deserve.

Bill Turner