This was going to be the year Cooper Gilmour would get scouts’ attention as a left fielder and second baseman for Orange Lutheran, which is ranked No. 1 in the nation by MaxPreps. Then the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, bringing high school sports and the rest of the world to an abrupt halt.
“I’m currently uncommitted. As a senior, it’s been really tough,” Gilmour said. “I was hoping to get a lot of exposure this year from being on the field.”
This was going to be the last season Los Alamitos softball pitcher Tyler Denhart would play alongside girls she has known since she was 6, her teammates and friends on the nationally top-ranked Griffins. She had waited her turn to become an impact player in a perennially strong program and had seized her chance, going 6-0 for the 10-0 Griffins and enjoying the perks of being a senior.
The California Interscholastic Federation’s cancellation of the rest of the high school spring sports season, announced on Friday, means Denhart and thousands of other high school athletes around southern California won’t finish what they started. They understand why the cancellation had to happen. That doesn’t make it easier to accept they’re losing precious moments they can’t experience again.
“It’s definitely been difficult to wrap my head around,” said Denhart, who has committed to Southern Utah. “I’d say it does suck for all the athletes because we all had so much ahead of us. And us as seniors, it was our last year and we wanted to make something special out of it but we didn’t get that chance.”
Los Alamitos coach Rob Weil feels wistful, too. The Griffins’ season halted the day after they learned they were ranked No. 1 in the country. They didn’t have a chance to enjoy that and make a run at a national title.
“It’s a shame,” he said Friday. “Our seniors were great leaders. It was a great start to a season that we thought we were going to do very well at.”
There will be no senior day or traditional team banquet, but Weil vowed to make up for that.
“We always recognize our seniors with some type of gift, “ he said, “and we’ll definitely do that again this year if that means I’ve got to personally deliver it to their house and leave it on their porch. We just got our pictures back. … Maybe we’ll just drive around and take them to all the kids’ houses and leave them on the porch and wave to them to try and cheer them up.”
Chris Vogt, baseball coach of No. 7-ranked Ayala High in Chino Hills, has changed the tone of his communication with his players to focus on their emotional well-being.
“Some of them didn’t understand it. ‘What do you mean? Everyone I know is fine.’ And I think it was hard initially to understand why everything was shutting down,” he said. “I was a senior in high school when [the Sept. 11 attacks] happened and it was a tangible thing. With the pandemic, because you don’t see it, it’s hard.
“Initially I was just asking, ‘Are you playing catch?’ And stuff like that. Now it’s more of, ‘How are you doing?’ I talked to a couple of the seniors at length. They’re upset. This was a very, very close-knit group from seniors down to sophomores.”
The disappointment lingers for some winter sports athletes, too. Members of the girls’ basketball team at Paloma Valley High in Menifee, winners of the Southern Section Division 4AA title, were in the gym with their bags and vans packed for the state championship game in Sacramento on March 12 when they learned the final had been called off. They had breakfast and parted, a best-ever 34-3 season suddenly over. It was devastating.
“Especially for the two seniors who had experienced the program at its lowest and were part of this transformation. For their season to end that way, it was heartbreaking,” coach Matthew Dale said. “We’ve been communicating through text messages and group texts but you go from seeing someone every day for six months to now we’re not even getting a sense of closure.”
Playing for the state championship, Dale said, “maybe is a thing that happens commonly at schools like Mater Dei or something like that, but for our little school to be there and have that chance, it just doesn’t happen, maybe ever again. Who knows?”
That’s the worst part, losing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. “Now, we don’t have a prom. We don’t have Grad Night and just spending senior year with our friends, making it memorable,” Denhart said. “It is hard.”
Orange Lutheran pitcher Christian Rodriguez, a senior who committed to Cal State Fullerton but is awaiting the Major League Baseball draft, hoped until recently the CIF would find a way to finish the season. “I’m feeling a lot of hurt and sadness, just like a lot of my teammates are,” he said.
“The group that we had this year was really special and to hear I won’t be able to step on the field with my brothers and try to achieve that goal of winning CIF, it’s heartbreaking. To say I played my last varsity high school baseball game against Mater Dei [on March 11] is unreal.”
Every year, Orange Lutheran coach Eric Borba plays his seniors in the Lancers’ last home game. He didn’t play them all on March 11. “Now I wish I would have,” he said.
Borba hopes to honor them and the entire team someday. “Whenever this is over with, whether that’s two weeks, a month, a year, we will find a way to do something together as a group,” he said. “On the field, I think, where the guys actually get in their uniforms and they’re out on the field together and in the dugout together.”
Amid a health crisis that has changed the way we live, canceling a high school sports season might seem inconsequential. Still, it’s a painful tear in the fabric of so many lives, a rip that can’t be completely repaired.