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Reaction to the lost spring

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Medford senior baseball player John Mc-Murry said Friday. “There’s really no silver lining I don’t think, but you have to take it day by day. There’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to keep a positive attitude.”

Those thoughts echo a sampling of reactions received from coaches, athletic directors and student-athletes in the area over the past two weeks as spring’s cancellation became reality. Everyone is simply forced to roll with the punches.

While spring is typically a season of constantly-changing schedules, no one saw a complete cancellation coming a month and a half ago.

Not knowing when some semblance of normalcy will return has become just as difficult.

“That’s the unsettling part,” Rib Lake athletic director Mike Wudi said on April 20. “It’s so uncertain. Obviously everyone would crave for a hard deadline and hard information, but it just doesn’t work that way.”

While canceling the spring season and tournaments during its April 21 meeting, the WIAA’s Board of Control left an avenue open for some healing and closure for spring athletes, allowing for a 30-day contact period between coaches and athletes. That contact period would allow for practices and competitions to be held, with July being the likely target time, but public health restrictions will need to be relaxed for it to happen and local guidelines will need to be followed.

“I’m not optimistic that we’re going to be open for business in that sense in July yet,” Gilman’s athletic director Brian Phelps said on April 17, the day after Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order was extended to May 26. “I just don’t know where this is headed. Here in Taylor County, I still don’t think we have a case if I’m not mistaken. I’m glad. I like to hear that. Statewide, every day we’re still adding 150, 160 cases. We’re steady at that number but we’re certainly not going down. I just don’t see them going full bore. I think even if they open things back up in June and July it’s going to be crowds of no more than 10 or 20, something like that.”

Won’t get it back

Phelps doubles as Gilman’s softball head coach. While the Pirates are fortunate to have the memories of last year’s state tournament run, the vast majority of the roster was back this year. They were among a handful of Division 5 teams clearly viewed as a state championship contender.

“Certainly we’ve had some really good teams over the last 27 years, but I don’t know depth-wise if we’ve ever been quite this deep at the plate,” Phelps said. “It’s a little bit of a bitter pill to swallow. ... With what we had coming back this was one of those years where like, ‘yeah we’re going to work on getting better every day.’ But in the back of your mind you’re like, ‘we’re pretty loaded.’” On-field success aside, Phelps said there are greater losses in this unfortunate series of events.

“The hardest part to me is just the experiences,” he said. “Win, lose, good or bad, we’re never going to have those experiences together. I was telling somebody one day, we would’ve had three sets of sisters on the team. They’re not going to get to play together. (Assistant coach) Breana Piekarz and I were talking after the news broke and I said I would’ve never dreamed when we left Goodman Diamond last year that was going to be the last time this core group was going to play together.”

Rib Lake head baseball coach Dick Iverson ranks as the dean of Taylor County spring coaches. He was set to enter his 37th year in that position.

“After 37 years, this was a new one,” Iverson said on April 22. “You have a lot of ups and downs. We’ve had things happen with injuries. You have a lot of weird stuff happen as you coach. Now you get to add this one where you lose a whole season because of a virus. That’s something new. Hopefully we don’t have to do another one of these.”

Some of that team’s players were hit with a double whammy of losing out on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the state basketball tournament when that season was cut short and then not having a baseball season at all.

“It’s pretty disappointing especially for the seniors. It’s terrible for the seniors,” Iverson said. “We had a nice group of seniors and we thought we’d have a really good season this year with a chance to do well in our league. I think we could’ve had a shot to win our league. There was a lot of balance in our league this year. There was a lot of good teams. I think everyone was pretty balanced.

“Tournament wise we had a lot of experience coming back,” he added. “I was looking forward to that. I know the kids were. We had our goals set pretty high this year. I know the basketball team had set their goals on going to state. For us, they thought it’d be cool to go to state in two things. You never know. That would’ve been way down the road, but at least they had their goals set high. Now they don’t even get a chance to see how they could’ve done. They’ll never know.”

While obviously disappointed, Iverson said the big picture is most important.

“The biggest thing is you never got a chance to play,” he said. “But it’s not like it’s just us. It’s the whole state and everybody. You have to look at it that way. You have to look at the bigger picture, which is kinda hard to do for kids at that age. It’s hard to do for anybody.”

Baseball and softball are among the hardest-hit sports by the timing of the pandemic because it not only wipes out their 2020 regular season, but the summer season, where high school players look to make improvements for next spring by playing on organized teams, is up in the air. Medford head baseball coach Justin Hraby is also the president of Medford Area Little League. His whole summer seemingly hinges on decisions that are out of his control as to when players of all ages, from T-ball to the Legion level, can get back together.

“The hardest part of all this is the uncertainty,” Hraby said. “Not even just for the spring season, but for summer activity, for Little League, for all of that. We have no idea what we’re going to be able to do. That’s the hardest thing. When kids ask what’s going on with the summer, I have no answers. Before I had a schedule, I knew who was coaching, I knew who was playing. Now I have no idea what’s going on.”

Through March and April, Hraby said he tried to keep his varsity players thinking positively, as the understandable frustrations built with some.

“We were able to use Google Classroom and just put some workouts and stuff out there,” Hraby said. “I know guys have been working out. I know a lot of guys have been in the cage and stuff. I’ve been messaging them a little bit here and there, encouraging them to hang on, try to stay positive.”

“I was holding out hope,” he added. “I was hoping for something positive to come out and that maybe the order got lifted and that maybe by the middle of May we’d be able to put a couple of weeks in, even if it was one round of conference play and then playoffs. I was hoping for something for these kids. And not just because I felt like we were going to be good this year. A lot of these kids put a lot of time in, a lot of hard work.”

Medford’s soccer program is another one that takes both a spring and summer hit. The girls team had built some buzz following last June’s surprise run to the sectional final match and the Raiders were excited to see what Reardon, who grew up playing the game in England and has coached the game much of his adult life, would bring as head coach.

“Expectations were high and excitement was building in the off-season,” Reardon said Tuesday. “We were all pretty sad when the COVID hit. We just had our team meeting on that Monday and everyone was just fired up and ready to go. Like I said, there were a lot of high expectations this year and, pffft, this just popped the balloon.”

To keep girls engaged, Reardon said he’s been creating videos of skills they can work on and sending them to the players each weekday on Snapchat. Girls were uploading videos of themselves doing different skills and communication was strong, especially early in the shutdown.

“It’s important for me to try to keep that contact,” Reardon said. “And for the players that want it and do the soccer stuff I’m giving them the opportunity to continue doing it. It actually started really well, the first few weeks it was brilliant. I’m trying to give them opportunities to be better.

“Definitely in the first two weeks I think there was still some hope,” he added. “We were thinking we were only going to miss a couple of weeks. Then you got to the point where we got to the end of the month and you’re like are we really going to be able to cram a season into a month? Then you get hit with the season’s done. There might be an extra 30 days in the summer, which is good, but it doesn’t make up for losing a season and that competitive part.”

Medford’s was set to launch a new club soccer team, which would have given high-school aged players a chance to compete at a high level in the summer in the Central Wisconsin Soccer League.

“I think the original plan for the summer is not going to happen now,” Reardon said. “I can’t see there being any soccer tournaments in the summer. That’s going to be a mass gathering and I just don’t think there’s going to be any mass gatherings of any kind in the summer.”

Reardon said he and boys head coach Nathan Bilodeau will give girls and boys any opportunities to improve during the summer that are allowed.

“We’re not the only team,” Reardon said. “Everybody’s got to come back from it. Everybody’s lost that really important time. It’s going to be about how we come back from it, the work we do in the summer, the work we do in the fall. That’s going to be the difference.”

Area conferences were making contingency plans in case shortened spring seasons would’ve been able to start up after Wisconsin’s first Safer at Home order was allowed to expire on April 24.

“Obviously, we’d need to get in the minimum number of practices but then we’d be ready to hit the ground running, you know, schedule some doubleheaders for softball and baseball, schedule a couple of track meets, have a conference meet. That’s what (Great Northern Conference athletic directors) fully intended to do up until (April 16), Medford activities director Andy Guden said on April 17. “If you remember, the last two springs haven’t been real kind to us, so we understand how this kind of thing in spring works. It would’ve been the same kind of thing.”

“It’s pretty tough,” Medford senior Ean Wilson said. Wilson, a two-time WIAA Division 2 sectional qualifier in the 110-meter high hurdles was looking forward to taking one last shot and breaking through and getting to state this spring. “It’s sad. I just miss hanging out with friends at the track meets and the little fun moments between when you race. Then the actual races are just fun because your adrenaline’s pumping and just kinda going.”

“It’s super disappointing,” said Franny Seidel, another senior track standout from Medford. “We had big things planned. This winter, I know me and a couple other girls on the team worked really hard. We were hoping to have (a season). I didn’t expect this at all. I know we had our first meet coming up when it all got canceled. Then it all went downhill from there.”

“I really miss going to practice,” Iverson said. “I’ve always liked going to practice just as much as games. The games are the reward. For the kids at that age, you just have fun with them. You have your traditions, your long trips, you have a lot of things you miss out on. Now you realize it.”

The sudden end to the boys basketball tournament is something Wudi said he’ll never forget.

“We went on that Thursday (March 12) from everything’s normal in the morning to all of a sudden at 9 a.m. we had to limit fans and deal with that and allocating tickets,” he said. “We played a game and then all of a sudden you start hearing things during the game and getting alerts about the Kohl Center being closed. Then midnight, 1 a.m., the tournament was shut down. Friday we went to school we had a little school dance with the middle schoolers. But by Saturday and Sunday, schools are closed. And here we are. The speed at which it went was just unbelievable.”

Fall start uncertain

The summer contact days are the next thing local school officials will wade through as the coronavirus situation changes, seemingly on a day-to-day basis. But they also have an eye on fall and the questions certainly building in peoples’ minds the longer executive orders and social distancing are in place.

Fall includes the sports of football, volleyball, cross country, boys soccer, girls tennis and girls swimming.

“The AD in me says I’m still concerned about August,” Phelps said. “While the numbers are leveling out, we’re still adding all the time and until we have a vaccine, I don’t know. I would say right now it’s a coin flip.”

“I’m hopeful we’ll be starting up again in the fall, but honestly, I’m doubtful we’re going to be able to do that. Not without some changes,” Guden said.

“You want to be optimistic, you almost have to be optimistic,” Wudi said. “I do worry about some things. Football, here’s the ultimate close contact activity with blocking, tackling and all that kind of stuff. Volleyball you’ve got a dozen kids banging the same ball back and forth. I don’t know where that’s going to be. I have to hold out optimism that somehow by then there’s going to be something going on. But, we’ll see.”

Hraby may have summed up best what all involved are thinking.

“It’s unfortunate for everybody,” he said. “I never saw this coming. These are the types of things you see in movies. You watch it and think that will never happen. And here we are.”