Written by Brad Peters
Nothing is guaranteed.
Those three words have likely been uttered, stated, shouted or declared by every coach in every sport more times than they could count.
It’s a reality in sports. Injuries play no favorites, every athlete is susceptible. No win is final until the buzzer. No race is won until you’ve crossed the line. Until that final out is recorded, anything can happen.
And this is true. Injuries, opponents, trick plays, bad calls, impressive finishes; the Legion of Doom every coach warns their athletes about is lurking, waiting to snag the prize from their grasp. Play on boys! Don’t let down, ladies!
Coach long enough and you’ve seen it all.
Or so we thought up until Friday, March 13, when COVID-19 reared its ugly head, came from behind and
stole not just the game but the whole season.
No one could have guessed this one. Al Michael’s famous call in the 1980 Olympics when the US beat the heavily favored Soviets in hockey, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes! Unbelievable!” could fit the current play-by-play, albeit with a less patriotic and joyous exuberance.
“My first thought was unbelief” said boys Lacrosse coach Chris Kostka as he reflected on what will go down as maybe the greatest Friday the 13th in modern history. “Prior to our last game against Damien on the 11th, I had heard that NCAA cancelled its lacrosse season and the NBA suspended theirs. I had an idea something would happen, but never this.”
Probably what the Soviets thought too, back in ’80 as the last 5 seconds of that semi-final game ticked off the clock. Neveroyatno. Unbelievable.
“I was in denial for a bit” said boys volleyball coach Corey Kleven.
Dean of the Martin Luther King High coaching staff and head track and field coach John Corona echoed Kleven’s and Kostka’s thoughts. “Wow, its really over” were the first words that daggered through his mind. “It has really happened.”
Its gotta be something big to take a coach with 41 years of experience by surprise.
The initial call by school officials was a postponement of the season, leaving a glimmer of hope that a few games or matches could be played in late April or May. Coaches, athletes … everyone stared intently at that skinny ray of light.
“I think we were all hoping that our season would be able to resume at least league games and then playoffs” Kostka said. He and Corona encouraged their athletes to keep training, stay in shape, not give up.
That shard faded to black last week when both the school district and the CIF State office made it official: Game over. Spring is cancelled.
“I think most about the seniors” said swim coach Leisha Masi as she, like everyone else, tried to process what had happened. “Their transition from high school to the next stage of life has an emotional toll and missing it will be harder.”
These rites of passage — Senior Night, Awards banquets, prom, graduation, and valedictory farewells are part of the high school culture and will be a yawning void for many as they quietly slip away from the school. “They deserve the opportunity to have their team and coaches celebrate and honor them for the legacy they helped create” Masi added.
Instead, a Zoom chat will have to do, but no one’s buyin’ it.
Kostka quickly had two seniors come to mind, Lucas Suh and Ozzie Saucedo. “Those two guys have played for a long time, since the Riverside Raptors, the youth program. Its been hard to see all of the seniors miss out on finishing strong with the sport they love so much. They all had so much left in them.”
“I have twin daughters who are seniors at King” said Kleven, the volleyball coach. “Their emotions were a glimpse for me into what my senior players are going through.”
Seasons embody opportunity. Spring offers budding renewal from the darkened days of winter. Summer warms the land and Fall brings color before the crisp winds blow back in. The cycle repeats itself, life is patterned. And the same is true in sports; no matter what last year looked like, this season will be better, believes practically everyone.
Which made the cancellation of Spring so much more difficult to grasp. Like wind-blown pollen from the dandelions in the grass, so much just took flight and disappeared.
“Our varsity team GPA this year was going to be over 4.0” said head golf coach Kevin LeDuc of the “student” part in the title student-athlete. “It would have been the highest GPA we had in my 10 years here and I believe we would have won the Riverside County team award for GPA.”
“Goodness, I would have loved to see my kids grow this season” Masi said. She noted the inspiration of Zoey Blair, a rookie to swim who had trained on her own in her backyard pool in order to make the team. Fellow 9th grader Emily Ausmus had already earned CIF qualifying times in just the first two meets of the season. Will Tibbetts (11th) had done so as well, after increasing his commitment to practicing both swim and water polo over the year. Kleven mentioned the fun he had getting to know Wyatt Gonzalez, a unique player who welds and does masonry work when he’s not on the court.
“I am very disappointed that our girls 400 meter relay team will not get a run at the State meet again” said John Corona. The foursome had made the Semi Finals at State in 2019. “Juliane Malolos, Kayla Seldon, Sheredyn Pfeiffer and Raykiyat Olukoju comprise one of the best sprint groups we’ve ever had and after just two meets they had one of the top times in California.” All but Raykiyat are seniors. None of them will be in Clovis come late-May.
It will be almost summer by then, for many it may still feel like winter.
Coaches and athletes alike now find themselves with a whole lot of quarantined time on their hands. Time to fiddle. Time to think. Time to reflect.
Kevin LeDuc, who’s love of sport goes far beyond the golf he coaches, said, “I think this time shows us how valuable community, friendships and teams are. They bring people together, they make you feel comfort and safety. When you take all those things away it just is difficult. Sports brings people together. Without high school sports to participate in, or professional sports to watch, I think people miss the camaraderie and friendship that comes with these great games. Just the simple joy in a sport like golf of getting outside and walking a course.”
Joy. It’s a word Masi used as well. “What great joy high school athletics has given me. Some of my favorite memories come from the times I spent with my teammates” she said of her years swimming at Riverside Poly and then Cal State San Luis Obispo.
She quickly flip-turned to the present but stayed in her lane: “I hope my student-athletes are redefining what their purpose may look like in their teenage life right now. What a gift to grow as human beings and may we all come back better for it.”
Kostka is managing the disappointment. “We’re a family on that field” he said of his 23 players. “My heart breaks for these players, … but I know we are learning valuable life lessons from this.”
“As we’ve painfully found out” Corona mused, “things can be taken from you in a moment, and it doesn’t have to be a pandemic that does it. To be able to look back knowing you did your best is a great source of strength and solace, and knowing that together we conquer tough times.”
Corona likes to joke about his age (he’s a Boomer) but he’s not old enough to remember Winston Churchill’s WW2 advice, “if you’re going through hell, keep going.” While this pandemic may not be quite that bad for most, marching on is all we’re left with, after all. There’s no instant replay that can reverse the call. We don’t have a bench player to summon who can change the outcome of the game. It is what it is.
But then again it isn’t.
“We will get through this and be better for it” said Kostka. “I tell my players all the time, ‘lets be better today than we were yesterday.'”
Spoken like a true coach. His words defy a macabre scoreboard and scoffs at what the Great Pandemic has apparently stolen from his kids. They exhort, play on! for they echo an ancient truth that whispers to us again in a time like this: Tribulation produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope … and hope never disappoints.
Hope also tends to bloom in Spring, even when Spring is cancelled.