A spring with no sports: Players, coaches process season lost to COVID-19

By Kyle Craig, Josh Folck, Brad Wilson | For lehighvalleylive.com

Bangor Area High School’s co-head track and field coach Mark Hopstetter had started the spring off on a major high note.

“This was the first time in 18 years of coaching track, six at Stroudsburg and 12 at Bangor, that we were outside for the first week of practice,” he said. “We had such a mild winter. Things were going so well.”

Then came COVID-19, a pandemic, school shutdowns and, Thursday, the PIAA’s decision to cancel all spring sports along with the remainder of the winter championships.

“I really didn’t think it would get this bad,” Hopstetter said. “I understand the safety aspects of the coronavirus. But I feel badly for all my newcomers, who are going to miss a whole season. … These kids all came out hoping to have success and to become top athletes.”

Hopstetter said he was “heartbroken” for his seniors.

“I look at a hurdler like Nate Owens, he was going to be one the best in the league and district; I was looking forward to watching Nate have some great duels with (Palmerton’s) Jordan Nelson. And Derek Lasher, one of the best pole vaulters in the state,” Hopstetter continued. “Marino Bubba, who set the school record in the 800. They all should have had a chance at states. I feel badly for the kids who needed their senior season to help get a scholarship.”

The state organization’s decision shook the local baseball scene, as well.

“The Rover baseball program and our coaching staff is highly disappointed for our 2020 team and especially our seniors who won’t have the opportunity to perform and compete on the field,” Easton coach Carm LaDuca wrote in an email. “We have a great group of players who worked hard and prepared for the 2020 season. For them not to have that chance is difficult, but our program fully supports the community it resides in and knows that everyone’s health is paramount.”

Freedom baseball coach Nick D’Amico was crushed when thinking about his Class of 2020.

“It was tough to see,” D’Amico said. “I feel heartbroken for these seniors. I couldn’t imagine going through a season in my high school career and not being able to play. Some of these kids will never, ever play baseball again, which is very tough.”

The Patriots showed promise in the time they practiced before the pandemic shut things down.

“We had eight seniors,” D’Amico said. “We took our lumps last year. … We had our first scrimmage, everything was clicking, we were playing well. … It looked very promising. Now all that hard work that these kids have put in for months and months, it’s not like the season just started for us. We’ve been doing stuff all year long. It’s tough to see all that hard work that we put in and it’s not going to happen now.”

The big picture

Allentown Central Catholic boys lacrosse coach Dan Dolphin has been around the sport for a long time, but has obviously never dealt with a situation quite like this.

He was crafting a letter to players and parents when contacted on Thursday.

“It’s extremely disappointing. I was kind of hoping against hope that we might be able to get back to school at the end of April or early May and play some type of shortened season, even if it extended into early June,” the longtime Vikings leader said. “Unfortunately, that’s not to be. I really feel for the seniors.”

Dolphin’s heart goes out to the players who saw the last year of their career disappear, without ever knowing the team’s true potential. But, he knows those issues pale in comparison to a global health crisis.

“This is one of those disappointments in life that people face occasionally. Hopefully, we don’t face this type again. Sometimes things happen in life that you have no control over. You kind of have to learn to deal with it,” Dolphin said. “… They have to look at the big picture, too. Literally, hundreds of people are dying. … They have to look at the big picture in comparison to missing a lacrosse season or baseball season.”

The reigning lehighvalleylive Girls Lacrosse Player of the Year, Easton senior Riley McDonald, echoed the same sentiments as Dolphin, even though she knows that people are losing sports during a time in which they might need them the most.

“The cancellation of the lacrosse season has been disheartening to our team. In a time like the one we’re in, I think people are yearning to lose themselves in something a bit, and to not be able to do something, like lacrosse, that makes that so easy, is frustrating,” said McDonald, who will play field hockey at the University of Delaware. “Although the emotions we’re experiencing are valid, it would be wrong not to recognize the bigger picture. I thank God my family members are healthy. Focusing on what I do have, and not what I lack, is what’s important. My heart goes out to the athletes who rely on their sport as a safe haven.”

Dawn Cipolla’s Parkland girls lacrosse team has won four straight District 11 titles. The coach will encourage her players to lean on those great memories while dealing with this cancellation, as well as the disruption to their lives as a whole.

“I am very sad, emotional and disappointed,” Cipolla said. “I’m actually writing an email to them now and I am struggling to find the right words to say to them. I’m going to tell them my heart aches for each of you, especially the seniors. I’m going to tell them to focus on the goods times we had, the hard work that they put in, the friends that they have made and the championships they have won.”

Potential unrealized

Nazareth track and field coach Ken Rolek, like others, was keeping his fingers crossed for some sort of abbreviated competition. The pain of cancellation may hit a team such as Nazareth hard because the Blue Eagles had such a bright spring ahead.

“We had one of the best javelin throwers in the state in Collin Burkhart and one of the best long jumpers in Anthony Harris. … They were both potentially state champions,” Rolek said. “We had a really good boys distance team, a good 4×800 relay; Travis Lahr had run under 4:29 (in the mile) indoors and Danny Brunner had run under 10 minutes in the 2-mile. We have a great girls sprinter in Alexis Doherty, and she stopped playing basketball to work on her sprinting.”

Liberty’s softball team also had a feeling this spring was going to be special for a large cast of seniors.

“My freshman year, we won districts and went to states,” said Hurricanes senior pitcher Paige Zigmund, who will attend Lock Haven. “Sophomore and junior year, it was pretty down because the competition was so high and we lost so many good players. But this was kind of our year because 13 out of our 15 players are seniors. We were going in with so much confidence. It’s upsetting because we didn’t get senior night. We were always so excited for senior night. … We thought we would go out with a bang, but we’re not having the chance to.”

The season was also going to be special for Liberty coach Sam Carrodo, who was returning to the bench after missing last year with health issues.

“It would’ve been 40 years straight that I was coaching until I missed last year. And now this year,” Carrodo said. “Hey, I can keep coaching. Some of these kids will never play this game again, except for summer league and travel ball and that kind of stuff. They may not play at the collegiate level. It hurt. I tried to keep them upbeat, but I had to try to keep myself positive at the same time.”

Programs like Bangor’s softball team will have to process the what-ifs.

“We’ve had some pretty good teams in the past. We told the whole team that this team had the potential, we believe as a coaching staff, to be the best team we’ve ever had here,” Slaters coach Rich Kessler said.

The Slaters will say goodbye to four seniors, including standouts Dani Hess and Morgan Karasek.

“I’m upset and my heart’s broken for our seniors. Actually, all of our team, our coaching staff. We all put a lot into it and we all enjoy it so much. And it’s just taken away. The opportunity is gone,” Kessler said.

Championship defenses denied

Notre Dame’s Tommy Kitchell wanted to keep focused on the future.

The senior will not be able to defend his PIAA Class 2A discus championship or chase the shot put crown he had his eyes on.

But he has a scholarship waiting for him at Wake Forest and a very promising future.

“Now, it’s time to look forward and start to get ready for the college weights,” he said. “I’m extremely blessed to have a chance to continue track at Wake Forest. This has truly been a great ride.”

But Kitchell will miss the last part of that ride.

“It’s a very sad day for a lot of spring athletes,” he said. “I think about all the endless hours I put into training for the season and it really hits hard.”

Notre Dame’s baseball team won’t get an opportunity to return after going to the PIAA 3A championship last season. The Crusaders won 16 games in a row last spring and senior catcher Jacob Yurkovitch is grateful for that experience.

“That was obviously a year I will never forget,” he said. “I remember my freshman year, I became friends with Tommy Kitchell. … I remember him saying, ‘Jake, I’m going to win a state championship and I know you can do it, too.’ … I’m getting choked up even talking about it. Hearing those words my freshman year and my junior year going to play in a state final, it was like: ‘I’m here. This is everything I worked for and it’s here.’ It was just unreal. … I couldn’t ask for anything better at Notre Dame in general.”

Yurkovitch, who will play at Northampton Community College, was one of nine seniors who would’ve suited up for the Crusaders.

“You talk to them a little bit about what they accomplished in three years at Notre Dame,” Crusaders coach Mike Bedics said. “Our last season was a record-setting season. … The nice part about it is a number of them are going to be continuing on. So, it’s not the end for them.”

Rolek noted that it’s a tough deal for everybody and generates new uncertainties.

“Everybody is talking about the seniors, and it’s terrible for them, but what about the juniors?” Rolek said. “Junior year is when they get their resumes out for college. Now, they have nothing and I have no idea what the colleges are going to do.”

Catasauqua junior Derek Troxell offered some perspective for fellow Pennsylvania athletes in a message that was included in the PIAA’s recent newsletter.

“No one would ever want their sports career to end like it has for many athletes. It’s really hard to process that thought especially if you are a senior,” Troxell wrote. “… Instead of sulking and being upset about what happened, you should think back to all the positive ways your life was impacted. Not just through playing, but getting coached, being with teammates, and even opponents. … This is a hard time for all of us, but we can make it better by looking back and thinking how grateful we truly are.”

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