Cougar athletes cope with lost sports season

By Eric Erickson

Student athletes across the state and nation prepared for their spring sports competition. High school seniors anticipated one last chance to reach their goals, represent their schools and make memories with their teammates.

Then came the coronavirus.

When schools closed in mid-March, spring sports hit the pause button. The possibility of a shortened season still remained. Athletes held out hope.

In April, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order to finish the academic year with distance learning meant that the previously unthinkable became official: There would no spring sports season in 2020.

Disappointment hit hard for Como Park High School athletes in softball, baseball, badminton, golf, tennis, track and field, ultimate frisbee and boys volleyball.

After years of training in track and field, senior co-caption Emma Wolters had goals of attaining honors at the conference and section meets. Moreover, she’s missing the camaraderie.

“The chance to practice, laugh, and race alongside the most supportive, dedicated athletes I’ve had the honor of being teammates with makes me indescribably sad,” Wolters said.

Wolters trained far in advance of the season and has continued individual workouts during quarantine. But it’s not the same. “This spring has been more solitary than ever before.”

Coaches feel that isolation too. Track and field coach Tim Kersey hurts for the kids.

“Our seniors have been committed and I know that they were set to go,” Kersey said. “It’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re not able to help them meet their goals one more time. It’s not like they have another year of eligibility.”

Baseball coach Matt Smith misses the daily interaction with his boys. He also noted that competitively, this spring is a lost opportunity since many factors played in the Cougars’ favor.

“Experience was on our side,” Smith said. “Seniors Nick Jacobsen and Ephraim Mau would have been our returning anchors. Mix that in with Sully Lucy, Peter Wenger and Damian Perryman, we were looking fairly strong in our infield. Senior Tony Tarver was set to help the outfield and pitch too.”

Mau agreed with his coach’s analysis of the team roster and echoed the loss of being together.

“I miss playing baseball with my boys. I miss practicing every day and getting better,” Mau said. “My life has been really different without it.”

He added, “My reaction to hearing about sports (being canceled) was crying. The fact that I couldn’t finish my last year of baseball or go to school made me really sad. We missed out on baseball and all of the fun senior things.”

Like all the teams, Cougar baseball has tried to stay connected throughout the quarantine. But there’s no replacement for face to face interaction and purposeful practice.

“We talk to our coach over Schoology (team page) and we also have a group chat for the players,” Jacobsen said. “But the lost season is really disappointing. It’s rough that it had to end like this.”

Meanwhile, Como’s softball team is a perennial power in the St. Paul City Conference with eight city titles during coach John Fischbach’s 29 years in charge. Being a captain of the softball team is an honor that comes with responsibility and expectation.

Jade Sklar was a sophomore on the Cougars’ last championship team in 2018. This year, she was fired up for her chance to be a senior captain and help try to win another championship.

“It really hurt finding out that there will be no season,” Sklar said. “I had such high expectations for my team and personally, I’ve grown so much throughout my time on varsity. So, this year I really wanted to go out with a bang.”

Another consequence of fallout from COVID-19: Lost leadership opportunities for student athletes that form foundations for them as they take their future places in society. While admittedly small in the big picture of life, every senior on the boys’ club volleyball team will miss out on helping to build a program.

Volunteer coach Dylan Adair spearheaded the inaugural season of Como boys volleyball last year. Raising the level of play was set to be the charge of senior leaders Thai Lee, Dominic Vang, Htar Reh and Nathan Yang. With 50 players trying out, the interest in volleyball is obvious. But this year’s seniors won’t get the chance to leave their mark.

The Como boys tennis team is in a similar spot. Although a long-established program, the tennis team expected to field nearly 40 players in what would have been coach Kia Yang’s second year.

Senior Mar Ner Htoo misses everything about Como tennis but was quick to add that he and all the student athletes understand the reasons for cancellation. “The safety of everyone comes first even if I would love to play and learn with my teammates, classmates and peers.”

Badminton is Como’s most popular sport for girls. The fun and energy in the gym is a highlight for over 50 Cougars each spring. Except this one.

Coach Michelle Diaz has encouraged her players to stay connected on a team Facebook page where photos, videos and memories from previous seasons can be enjoyed.

Senior leaders Shar Too and Kiersten Howatt never could have imagined last year’s state tournament would have been their final badminton matches.

“I was so passionate preparing myself for upcoming matches,” Shar Too said. “I miss playing and cheering for the girls.”

From a wide range of activities and perspectives, there is a constant.

Athletics offer learning opportunities in a supportive environment. Winning results aren’t guaranteed. But what is certain are the chances to build relationships with teammates and to compete together. Losing that is what hurts.

The Class of 2020 student athletes will be remembered for how they handled that loss, and for their spirit in a historic time of uncertainty.

Eric Erickson is a social studies teacher at Como Park High School and a longtime coach of school and youth sports in St. Paul.

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