“There was no joy in Mudville” says the line in the famous poem, “Casey at the Bat”.
Currently, there is no joy for sports fans at all, as athletics as a whole has struck out.
Fans lamented the loss of March Madness and the continuous delay of the Major League Baseball season.
But when the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association (OSSAA) announced on Thursday that the remaining state basketball tournaments and all spring sports seasons would be cancelled, the real losers were the teams.
Athletes who put months of effort and preparation into their craft essentially saw their work be all for nought. And while coaches seemed to agree that safety-wise, it was the right decision, it didn’t soften the blow.
The final semester of high school (and college, for that matter) is supposed to be a magical time, a time of freedom and anticipation culminating with commencement. For athletes, the final season is meant to be one that will consist of lasting memories. Unfortunately for seniors participating in baseball, slow-pitch softball, soccer, golf and track & field, the final season will forever be remembered as the one that wasn’t.
For the coaches who had to tell their players there would be no season, who are now faced with an uncertain future for the next several months, it too has been devastating.
Most basketball teams at least got to play their seasons out. However, for the basketball teams who qualified for state tournaments scheduled for the second weekend of March, the season ended not with a buzzer, but with an announcement and a sense of unfinished stories.
Of the four local teams who qualified — MacArthur boys, Eisenhower girls, Comanche girls, Anadarko girls — perhaps none had a more unfinished story than Jeff Zinn’s defending champions from Anadarko. The Warriors were 26-1, winners of 48 of their last 49 games and riding a 24-game win streak. Zinn’s teams had captured state titles in 2012 and ‘19, but this team was dominating opponents in ways previously unseen.
“It’s hard to compare it to 2012 but this team was scoring nearly 70 points per game and holding opponents to about 28,” Zinn said.
Zinn said his team was nearly to its hotel in Oklahoma City when the tournament initially got postponed, and was “shocked”. Yes, all of his players who were on last year’s team will leave Anadarko with championship rings. But they’ll also have the lingering feeling of what this season might have been.
“It’s hard when you think that this could have been your best team ever,” Zinn said. “Whether we would have won it or not, I know they would have given it their all.”
For Marco Gagliardi and the MacArthur boys, who were already in the Tulsa area for their state quarterfinal game when the tournaments first got suspended/postponed, they’ll never know how they might have done against Tulsa Memorial. And while Gagliardi had a feeling the cancellation was impending, the final announcement still sent shockwaves.
“I kind of knew when schools got pushed back, we might be in trouble,” Gagliardi said. “The writing was on the wall and they’re probably doing the right thing. It’s just unfortunate.”
Eisenhower girls coach Daniel Wall said he and his team tried to stay positive as the fate of their postseason hung in the balance. And despite
“With the announcement, we were kind of bummed but tried to stay positive. We ended the season on a high note, beating MacArthur
With no state champions being crowned in 2A-6A, people with the OSSAA brought up the idea of awarding medals to each player on a state-qualifying team. While some have deemed it another case of “participation trophy culture”, others see it as a noble gesture that gives recognition to each student-athlete.
“I personally don’t believe you can call that a participation trophy,” Wall said. “You’re one of the top eight schools in the state, that’s a very prestigious thing. I think that’s something that gets lost sometimes, how big of a deal it is to make it to state.”
Jeff Zinn said whether the OSSAA distributes medals is up to them, but he does plan to honor his No. 1 team somehow.
“I do believe they deserve their picture up on the wall with the other state champs,” Zinn said. “There’s not a state champion. But I know how good they were. I know that the coaches around the state voted us as the No. 1 team from the beginning of the year all the way through the end.”
All three Lawton high school baseball teams, who were only a few games into the season, were scheduled to play in tournaments during Spring Break, with Eisenhower and Lawton High set to host some games as part of a festival. When activities got suspended, there still appeared to be a sliver of hope that games might continue in early April or so. But when the word came down on Thursday, a stark reality hit.
“It was a definite surprise,” Lawton High baseball coach Jim Pahcoddy said. “I understand the reasoning why. I just hate it for my seniors who are going to graduate. The hard work you put in during preseason, it’s a bummer. But it’s out of our control.”
Eisenhower coach Jay Vermillion said he admittedly kept leaving the proverbial door open, not wanting to tell his players there wouldn’t be a season, encouraging them that they would play again. When that hope was dashed, it was a gut punch for everyone.
“It’s hard to explain...other than it just makes you sick,” Vermillion said.
Perhaps no team had more reason to feel sick than MacArthur, who had a chance to make school history and qualify for a fourth consecutive state tournament. Coach Rodney DeLong said he had perhaps the best pitching staff he’d had in his four seasons at Mac. And while the team experienced some growing pains in the first couple of games, there was still some promise. Now, with no state tournament, there’s no fourth straight trip, no chance at a state title, no Senior Night and no telling how good the team might have been.
“I think this group would have continued to get better as the season went along,” DeLong said. “You never can tell, if your kids start playing well and jell and start to peak, you can make that run.”
Vermillion also felt good about his 2020 team, which appeared to be trending in the right direction with four seniors, including pitcher/infielder Bubba Paquin and catcher Ryan Shows. And while not having a season is difficult, that’s not what hurts Vermillion the most during this time.
“Not to see their faces every day has been really difficult for me. I know my players think of Coach Vermillion as this big, mean bear,” Vermillion said. “But what they might not understand is...my baseball players are the reason I come to school every day. They’re the reason I get excited to come (to school). Baseball is such a small part of this. You seem them mature, seem them grow into young men and citizens off the field.”
Each coach said the toughest pill to swallow was thinking about their seniors. For Pahcoddy, who joined the Lawton High staff in 2017, this senior class was the first he had for all four years. And despite winning just 12 total games over the past two seasons, the seniors were developing into role models for others on the team.
“This class of seniors, I appreciate how they took on role of being a team leader,” Pahcoddy said. “We’ve changed the culture, not by wins and losses, but by showing up on time and practicing hard and doing things the right way.”
Beyond the games, the cancellations raise many other logistical questions. What happens to college scholarships? What about players who were counting on being seen by scouts at a state tournament or during their baseball/soccer season? What happens with summer workout programs? Are fall sports now also in jeopardy? With no timetable for shutdowns everything appears to be up in the air.
“We’re in complete limbo right now as far as how the summer is going to go,” Wall said.
At the end of the day, the coaches all agreed that there was disappointment, but not anger. The correct decision was made by the OSSAA, and if it could save lives, that’s what matters.
“Sports, in general, is something we do for fun. At the end of the day, it’s not that important,” DeLong said. “At the end of the day, it’s about our health and well-being. No doubt, OSSAA made the right decision.”
While each coach agrees the right decision was made, there’s still no masking the pain and bizarre nature of the situation.
“It just feels weird. I’m maintaining the ball field when I can. But you feel it, something’s missing,” Pahcoddy said.