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November 25, 2020

Sometimes the games don’t go on

For the local high school spring sports teams, the season has been put on hold—for now. The Gilroy Unified School District, Morgan Hill Unified School District and San Benito High School District last week made the decision to suspend all athletic events until at least April 10 (for MHUSD), April 13 (for GUSD) and indefinitely (for SBHSD) in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Given the fluid nature of the situation, it’s not beyond the scope of reason to believe the high school spring sports season will be canceled outright. The news affects the thousands of local high school athletes who have just began their respective seasons and had been practicing since early February. Gilroy High baseball coach Cole Mauter said he feels for each player on his team, especially the seniors, whose careers might have ended abruptly and without closure. 

“I feel awful for those seven seniors (on the baseball team) who now don’t get an opportunity to enjoy this last year (of their high school careers),” Mauter said. “I feel really bummed for the assistant coaches who are glorified volunteers who have spent hours and been away from family and missed dinners and all those things. Obviously, there is a rational, and it’s not an unfounded reason from a biological standpoint. You get it, but you feel for those people in those positions.”

Sobrato High Athletic Director Lawrence Crawford said he empathizes with the student-athletes, but also understands why the decision was made.

“If I was a 17 or 18 year old in high school, I’d be a little disappointed,” he said. “But if I was a mature one, I would understand we have to do certain things to keep people safe and make the best decisions you can based on the information we have at that moment in time.”

San Benito High senior Isaac Gonzalez, who is the defending Pacific Coast League Master’s Meet boys champion in the discus throw, was planning on having his best season yet. He showed his enormous potential at the team’s official Red and White practice meet on March 7, establishing a mark of 150 feet, 2 inches. Last season, Gonzalez took second in the PCAL Gabilan Division Championships, first in the Master’s Meet and 19th in the CCS Championships, a result he was eager to better this season. 

Now, with the distinct possibility that his season is done, Gonzalez was left to wonder what could’ve been. A two-sport standout—the 6-foot-1, 270-pounder also played offensive guard—Gonzalez has shown rapid improvement since he started track and field in his sophomore year. That season, Gonzalez had a PR of 124-3 in the discus and 39-9 ¼ in the shot put. Last season, he upped those marks to 144-5 ½ in the discus and 42-4 in the shot put. For the 2020 season, Gonzalez was looking to go over 160 feet in the discus and around 48 feet in the shot put. 

“We’re pretty sad because I felt like we were going to have a good season,” Gonzalez said, referring to himself and teammate Julia Hicks, who is the defending PCAL girls champion in the discus and shot put. “Everything got ruined because of this virus, and it hurts.”
The concerns around the coronavirus hit the California’s best basketball teams hard, as the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) canceled its basketball state championships. The event was scheduled to be held last Friday and Saturday at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento. 

Crawford has been involved in high school athletics ever since the mid 1970s—first as an athlete, then a coach and now as an administrator—and can’t recall a time when a season has faced cancelations across the board. Certain teams have been suspended throughout the years, but this situation is unprecedented. 

“We’ve been exposed to different challenges on a small and large scale, but we’ve never been involved in anything like this,” he said. “Most sports stoppages are isolated to one area, not nation wide and world wide.”

Two things can be equally true: While the cancellation of games is justifiable, one can’t help but feel for the hundreds of thousands of athletes locally—especially the seniors—who spent four years working for one last shot of glory. Many of them are trying to earn a scholarship offer, and those dreams might have instantly disappeared. 

“I understand why they’re doing this, but I feel bad for the girls,” Gilroy High softball coach Dusty Lester said. “For some of them, you’re talking about their livelihood and futures here (the impact of what a scholarship can do).”

While the student-athletes interviewed for this story said the cancellations are for the better, the feeling of disappointment is hard to shake off. Most of them train year-round, and with no payoff in the form of games, it’s heartbreaking to say the least. 

“They’re all sad, especially the seniors,” San Benito High softball coach Andrew Barragan said. “It’s their last year, and they don’t know the outcome, or if they’ve played in their last game. You can tell they’re a little sad, but that’s why we’ll keep them going with some practices. We’ll keep them tuned up until the school tells me we can’t do it anymore.”

Connor Hennings is the model high school student-athlete. The Live Oak High senior excels on the playing field and off it, a two-sport standout in baseball and football while maintaining a weighted 4.0 GPA. Hennings will play baseball in college—he just doesn’t know whether it will be at the community college or four-year level right out of high school.

Those around Live Oak High are surprised Hennings hasn’t been offered a scholarship yet; after all, Hennings checks off all the boxes. He looks the part (6-foot-3, 185 pounds), plays the part (in eight games this season, Hennings was tearing things up with three home runs, seven stolen bases, eight hits, 13 RBI) and has his act together on and off the field, Live Oak High baseball coach Matt Brotherton said. 

Mind you, Hennings put together a solid if not terrific junior season last year, and perhaps college coaches wanted to see how Hennings’ 2020 season would unfold before pulling the trigger on a scholarship offer. But it looks like we’ll never know. No matter what happens, Hennings will have options. If he gets accepted to Cal Poly San Luis-Obispo, he would probably attend the college and try to get walk-on status. 

If an offer never materializes, Hennings is prepared to go the community college route, where he could conceivably receive an offer from a university after just one season and transfer early. 

“I’m obviously going to stay motivated now and through the summer wherever I end up playing,” he said. “I’m going to work out everyday, try to get to go to the (batting) cages and go into the DUB facility because they have cages and a weight room. It’ll keep me motivated just to work harder, and hopefully an offer will come late spring or the summer.”

Last Friday, Hennings was set to attend the 60th annual National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame Northern California chapter’s award dinner as one of only 23 recipients who were gifted a $1,000 scholarship. The honorees were selected out of a pool of hundreds of student-athletes from 12 Northern California counties, with qualifications including a minimum 3.0 GPA and having “demonstrated leadership abilities and traits in school and in the community,” according to a Northern California chapter press release. 

But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the event was canceled. For Rickey Becker, a Christopher High basketball and baseball player, the anticipation of playing on the baseball team was palpable. Having recently helped lead the boys basketball team to a CIF NorCal playoff regional quarterfinal, Becker had been practicing with the baseball team for a week when the season got suspended. Even though the Cougars are in a rebuilding year and were 0-5-2 before the decision came down, the sophomore was looking forward to the season. 

“We had an idea that it was going to happen,” said Becker, who was phenomenal during the basketball season and was a playoff call-up to the 2019 baseball team that won the program’s first-ever Central Coast Section championship. “All the coaches told us what the deal was and how things were going to be. We were all pretty disappointed that our season was going to be postponed; everybody was looking forward to this season. I think we have a really good and young team, and we were actually supposed to play tomorrow (March 13). But when everything came out, we were kind of bummed we weren’t able to play for at least a month.”

The uncertainty is deafening, as the teams have no idea if the season will resume or be canceled outright. Things are obviously out of the coaches’ control, so all they can do is gather the team for practice and hold intra-squad scrimmages, if the numbers are there. 

“Everyone is just bewildered and don’t know what’s going to happen,” Barragan said. “As coaches, we’re all in same boat in that we do this for the kids. This is why we coach, not for the money or the recognition. But it’s all about the kids who go through the high school programs.”

Everyone who was interviewed for this story is hopeful the games resume, and the sooner the better. 

“Anything can happen, but we don’t know how quickly it can change around in regards to athletic participation,” Crawford said. 

Barragan said if progress is made on the coronavirus front, he’s hopeful it will have a ripple effect in a positive way. When Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert contracted the virus, it led to the shutdown of the NBA, with other professional sports leagues following suit in rapid-fire fashion. 

With most of the school districts in the Bay Area suspending all activities until mid-April—and some beyond—an organization like the Central Coast Section will have to figure out a plan for the playoffs just in case the high school sports season resumes. 

“The first playoff (on the calendar) is May 5, which is boys golf, so we haven’t changed that (start date) yet,” CCS Commissioner Duane Morgan said. “We’re kind of in a waiting mode to see what and how this all shakes out. … If the opportunity exists where we can have the playoffs, there will be adjustments (of how teams qualify for the playoffs). We don’t know yet how this looks like until we see where everything lands. The bottom line is if the playoffs can happen, we’d like to get the kids out on the field to play, but not at the expense of the greater good.”

For the most part, high school sports still remain one of the purest forms of athletic competition. The results matter, but it’s not just about the wins and losses. Rather, what most of the student-athletes will remember years from now is everything that happened beyond the games. As mentioned earlier, Becker was a late-season call-up to the Christopher baseball team that won the 2019 CCS Division II playoff championship. As a then-freshman, Becker played a small role, but he did his part well by being used primarily as a pinch runner. Even though the atmosphere was downright euphoric as the Cougars recorded the final out, it’s the relationships and other team-bonding activities that Becker and his teammates will vividly remember years from now.

“Winning it with the group of boys who were so close was really cool to see,” Becker said. “I think it’s pretty cool they still talk to this day and still keep in touch. … I’ll remember the people I played with. I know we’re losing three seniors this year (off the basketball team): Paul (Mann), Ethan (Fleener) and Donte (Sokol). So I’m going to miss them at practice. All the practices and activities we’ve done as a team is really going to stick with me. Our team is pretty close, and we’re basically brothers and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day.”

Live Oak’s Connor Hennings was off to a hot start this season before the spring sports season got suspended due to concerns of the Coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Robert Eliason.
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Emanuel Lee
Sports Editor of the Gilroy Dispatch, Hollister Free Lance and Morgan Hill Times. PR of 3:13.40 at the 2019 CIM. Hebrews 12:1.

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