High school sports, at least for the 2019-20 school year, are over.
The UIL halted a five-week waiting game for student-athletes and coaches around the state on Friday with its decision to cancel all remaining sports on the current academic calendar, the latest in a series of measures being taken around the state against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
It was the exact news teams were hoping to avoid, spending the past month with their sights set on resuming play through at-home workouts and video meetings with coaches and teammates — all for an outcome that left those involved without a proper resolution to the season.
“It was just shocking. Part of you felt like it was coming, but you still held out hope for the kids,” said Paul Coe, Allen head baseball coach. “Your heart hurts for those guys. I know we as a program started in August and worked all the way for this moment. For it to get taken away by something that’s out of our control is hard to deal with and hard to grasp.”
It’s a somber reality that many around the state have been coping with since Friday afternoon following the UIL’s announcement — a verdict that came just a few hours after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared that all schools would remain closed for the remainder of the academic year. The UIL’s decision-making process has been in lockstep with the governor’s since the pandemic took hold, making Friday’s announcement bleakly inevitable.
“I’ve watched more news over the past month than I think I have over the last 10 years, so after a while you’re not surprised by something like this,” said Justin Pipak, Plano Senior head softball coach. “This whole situation is still so surreal. I hate it all for the girls, but especially the seniors. Five of our six have been four-year starters, made the playoffs every year and were part of a state semifinal team.
“The list goes on and on with this group and the fact that they didn’t get to finish what they started is really hard.”
Coaches around the state echo those same sentiments for their own senior classes — many of whom have spent years building toward an opportunity to lead their teams and leave their mark on their respective programs. To have that chance taken away impacted coaches the most.
“The first thing I thought about was our seniors,” said Rick Woodard, East head boys soccer coach. “I’ve got a really special group of seniors this year and that group had just about everything … from the vocal to quiet leadership, to technically sound play, brains, strength — it was such a well-rounded senior group. I hope next year’s seniors will take that from them.”
“This senior class had been waiting for this moment for years and they did a heck of a job doing that,” Coe added. “They did the extra stuff to be great and waited their four years. In the 12 games we got to play, they did some special things. I’ve been in Allen a while and I can’t remember the last time we had offensive numbers like this.”
“A lot of them were very sad. That whole group is so tight-knit, and the juniors and sophomores wanted it just as bad for those seniors to go out on a high note,” Pipak added. “Their expectations were to win district and go as far as they could in the playoffs. They all love each other and could have never guessed this is how it would end.”
Many of those upperclassmen helped will their teammates on during the UIL’s initial suspension on all interscholastic activities while those within the athletics body worked on a myriad of contingency plans should play resume — everything from round-robin tournaments to single-elimination postseasons and even summer sports.
“The UIL is awesome and does everything in its power to help these kids reach their goals. They had something ready for every scenario,” Coe said. “There was even a chance we’d go into the summer, which I would have loved to do with these guys.”
It won’t be until the 2020-21 school year when teams hope for some semblance of a return to normalcy. In the meantime, they’ve paid their respects to the season that almost was, including numerous tributes to the seniors. For a program like Plano softball, those celebrations could continue into the summer.
“We’re going to try to find a way to honor those seniors,” Pipak said. “One thing we’ve thought about is once the social distancing measures are relaxed a bit is finding a way to honor them at the field — having (PA announcer) Matt Cone come out and do the whole Senior Night thing, just so they can have some closure to this.”
Finding closure won’t be easy given the work put in by many of these athletes. But through an all-too unique experience, coaches hope their players come out stronger and more focused from having dealt with it.
“There’s the coach talk of playing every game like it’s your last. Well, now these kids have been through this and it’s not coach talk anymore,” Coe siad. “They know it could happen and how soon it could end, so make sure when you look back on your career and have no regrets. Look back through this experience going forward and don’t leave one day where you could have or should have.”