NJ student athletes benched by COVID-19 hope for ‘1 more game’
Empty athletic fields are another repercussion of the novel coronavirus, as high school sports are on indefinite hiatus along with in-person learning across New Jersey.
It's especially harrowing for senior athletes, whose final Spring season has so far been non-existent.
“We know obviously we’re not going to have the full season we expected, but we want to at least try and have some type of an abbreviated season,” Julia Gagliardi said.
The Westfield High School varsity softball captain said every day, she feels the same nagging worries about what she, her team and her fellow graduating classmates are missing out on — practices, games, possibly prom, the chance to fight for a school title before moving on to college.
Ryan Goodall, a Toms River East High School senior, said it was already emotional enough to end his final basketball season with his longtime teammates, but at least they had baseball to look forward to.
“Now that’s been stripped away so far,” Goodall said and all those things they looked forward to as underclassmen — prom, other senior events, like an annual talent show fundraiser — might not happen.
Goodall is headed to The College of New Jersey, where he said he’s fortunate enough to be planning on playing baseball, but for “a lot of friends, this is their last chance at it and I’m upset for them.”
“Our team didn’t even have a chance to have a scrimmage,” Liam Horan said of his Rumson-Fair Haven High School lacrosse team. He said he thinks a lot of kids are frustrated, but should not lose sight of what is at stake, noting staying home is very important amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and even if they lose most of their season, “this is for the greater good.”
Horan, a senior, made it through his football and wrestling seasons but now is waiting to see when, or if, he will get to return to play lacrosse for his high school, before returning to the sport as an undergrad at Gettysburg College in the fall.
“I would absolutely love an opportunity to work together as a team,” Horan said, “Even for just one game would be great."
Many of the graduating players have been playing since fourth grade together, he said.
Julia Gagliardi will head to Loyola University Maryland at the end of summer, public health conditions willing, where she can play club softball, but there’s no varsity team at the college.
Julia’s mother, Cindy Gagliardi said, “We’re all just hoping for time.” She said she keeps telling people that these are “unprecedented times,” but that also means problems can be solved in an unprecedented way. Gagliardi says for example, being open to holding a senior prom in July, when businesses might be able to think about making up for lost events in 2020.
Ryan’s mother, Wende Goodall, said the non-existent season has affected the whole family, as they’re used to attending her son’s games and cheering for the team, many of whom have played together since T-ball or Little League.
“My heart breaks for them,” Goodall said, of the kids who now have leadership roles on varsity teams in their final year in high school, only to be sidelined by the virus.
Aside from the emotion of this surreal Spring for graduating athletes, there also is anxiety among some younger high school students wondering how the missed time might impact scholarship offerings.
Horan said he does know of some younger players who are a bit anxious that the timing of this pandemic might translate to less of a chance for them to be recognized on the field. He said Junior spring and summer seasons are traditionally important for players setting up their highlight reels.
Don Klein, Ocean Township High School football coach, said for underclassmen, especially juniors, the process is going to be different.
Klein said a lot of college coaches do use the evaluation period in the spring as an opportunity to get to know recruits, speak with them and their teachers and coaches, and that “obviously has taken a hit.”
But, everyone is in the same boat. “Recruiting is the lifeblood of their programs,” Klein said, for just about every sport, in particular football. So, he notes, “whenever we get cleared from this thing,” the evaluation period will begin.
Klein said it may be a bit more intense, in regards to trying to cram meeting or speaking with more recruits into a shorter time frame.
He also said for younger athletes, some “Junior Days” came just before the coronavirus started taking hold in NJ. The timing “kinda threw the breaks on some of the momentum” that some athletes would have seen in offers from other schools for athletic scholarships, which can also be expected to start back up whenever public health conditions allow.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association NJSIAA has been monitoring federal and state regulations for social distancing, before determining what remnant of a sports season is feasible.
A March 25 update on the NJSIAA website said its staff was focused on participation opportunities as soon as schools reopen, noting “All student-athletes will need an immediate sense of normalcy and providing even a semblance of a spring season will be essential to their physical and emotional health.”
At least two NJ high school athletes also have started online petitions for the NJSIAA to actively consider moving a streamlined season to the summer months, conditions permitting.
The efforts by Freehold Borough High School senior baseball player Sean Wodell and Lauren Mistkowski, a senior softball player at West Morris Central High School, each have collected thousands of signatures.
The NJSIAA has said such a return to some sport activities “also will benefit the entire school community.”