The news has come in waves, sometimes as teams were planning to depart for tournaments, sometimes as teams were in between games of a doubleheader.
As of Tuesday afternoon the dust had mostly settled – literally and figuratively – and for high school and college athletes throughout the county the news was not good.
All sports have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed as schools and athletic administrators joined the effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
For Southern Union’s baseball and softball teams the book is officially closed on the 2020 season after the NJCAA shut down all junior college spring sports nationwide on Monday.
For the high schools the situation is still somewhat open-ended, but the earliest that games could be played again would be the second week of April.
“I would hate to know I put in all these years of playing and work and workouts and everything we do, and you only get a few games your senior year or have it cut short,” said Handley head baseball coach Tyler Hall. “I’ve never been a part of this. I don’t think anybody has. It just seems surreal to be honest, and I just hurt for them inside.”
Hall’s Tigers were the last team in the county to take the field as they posted a doubleheader split with Valley Monday afternoon in Roanoke.
That’s after the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) on Monday issued a statewide shutdown of athletic events to coincide with state mandated school closures that began Tuesday and are scheduled last until April 6.
The move creates a complete shutdown of official athletic activities, as coaches and players are prohibited from working together either on campus or off. Players may participate in individual or group workouts on their own, but those workouts cannot take place at school facilities.
For those coaches who maintain hope that the season will resume, the rules of the shutdown are particularly worrisome.
“You hope they’ll work hard on their own. That’s bad when you can’t work with them. That’s tough,” said Handley softball coach Chris White.
On the baseball side it’s even more troublesome, particularly as it relates to pitching and keeping players’ arms in midseason shape.
“If you take that break off of baseball now you’ve got to be concerned about arm health,” said Woodland baseball coach Lane Gay. “Because I’m sure some kids will be able to throw [while we’re off], but some won’t.”
White’s Handley softball team was preparing to play at a weekend tournament at Choccolocco Park in Oxford Friday when the state issued a moratorium on gatherings of 500 people or more. The tournament featured multiple high schools from around the state and would have certainly surpassed 500 people in attendance, so it was canceled. Woodland’s softball team was also a victim of this cancellation, which wasn’t official until the teams were making preparations to depart for Friday’s games.
That may have seemed like a last-minute change, but it was nothing compared to the surreal events that took place during a baseball doubleheader between Southern Union and Lawson State Thursday.
SU head coach Aaron Everett received news in between games that the season was being put on hold.
“I’m standing there talking with coach Blake Lewis, who is the head coach at Lawson State,” Everett said. “And he said that he had received an email saying that we were suspending, and this would be the last game until March 30.”
That was prior to Monday’s NJCAA announcement that ended the season and left Everett, and others in similar positions, with more questions than answers.
“I don’t know what the next plan of action is other than we’re going to – I don’t know. Mow grass? Start planning for next year I guess,” Everett said.
Everett and softball coach Ally Silva will both have to sort out issues of eligibility, scholarship availability and overall roster management as the governing bodies of their sports determine how those questions will be resolved over the coming months.
The baseball team finished with a 4-2 win over Lawson State and finish their year with a record of 12-10. The softball team was off to its most promising start in years, but they will have to settle for a 19-9 record and the forever unanswered question of what might have been.
For the high school teams there is still a glimmer of hope that their seasons will resume, but some coaches aren’t optimistic that it will happen.
“Personally, I have my doubts,” Gay said.
And there’s no clear picture of how a resumed season would work given the constraints inherent in the timeline. Baseball’s state playoffs are scheduled to begin April 17, which would give teams less than two weeks after the sixth to complete their regular-season area schedules and work back into game shape for the postseason.
Softball’s timeline is somewhat less constrictive as area tournaments can be played as late as May 2 and regionals are scheduled to begin May 6.
“You don’t really know. Are we going to be able to come back and play area games, play area tournament, regional, state?” White asked. “Or are we going to come back and they say whoever’s got the best record in the area, they’re going to get to go to regionals? Are we not going to do any regionals and it just goes right to state?
“It’s hard to get a consistent, aggressive mindset right now because now we’re just in limbo,” he added.
Two things that coaches agreed on is that this is an unprecedented turn of events, and it’s a tough pill to swallow for senior student-athletes in their final year of competition.
“I hate it for our seniors because we have two seniors that have worked extremely hard,” White said. “That’s going to be tough on them, not to have your senior year to finish it out, not to know what could happen on the field. It’s a tough situation.”