Pandemic delivers final blow to high school season

By Bob Behre | May 6, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has Zach Sylvester of Montville High at home instead of racing for home.

Whether you feared the worst or were holding out hope for a miracle, your dream for some semblance of a high school sports season was dashed when Gov. Phil Murphy dropped the inevitable hammer on Monday.

High school seniors throughout the Garden State learned about noon on Monday that their desire to build lasting memories, during their much-anticipated senior seasons, was relegated to a months-long nightmare.

Honestly, waxing poetic about a situation out of the control of 17 and 18 year olds — and the rest of us for that matter — doesn’t do anyone any good, doesn’t make anyone feel better and is simply a waste of time. Let’s not call a spade a shovel. This stinks on an immeasurable scale.

On a personal level, the first high school sporting event I covered was in December of 1974. Take it easy. I was in ninth grade. So the loss for me is real, as it is for every coach in the state. But the truly painful loss is for the players, particularly the seniors. Once in a lifetime moments have been replaced by a once in a century pandemic.

Talking to players and coaches around the state, realism shines through that is humbling. Our coaches, as always, provide great perspective and our seniors provide great leadership in their mature approach to the kind of adversity no one could plan for. Their words are soothing.

You can see the raw emotion still right at the surface as we shared some thoughts with coaches and players around the state and we pray for a quick return to the field in preparation for the summer season. And don’t miss the insightful words of veteran sportswriter Greg Tufaro toward the end of this article.

Greg Trotter, head coach, Roxbury: I feel awful for the kids. Obviously, you feel for the seniors that will not be able to compete with one another, but it’s more than that.  I know our guys love playing and competing, but they also love the other stuff. The time in the locker room, getting in the weight room after games (especially wins), and going to eat together.  You always hope the kids can build memories on the field, but you also want them to remember the times when they can just be kids. We have built some great relationships with our guys and I was hoping for a few more months with them.  We feel like we have some special kids in our program and I would have loved to have seen all their hard work in the offseason transfer to the field. (Trotter’s Roxbury team won the Section 1, Group 3 championship in 2019).

Roxbury coach Greg Trotter

Zach Sylvester, Montville: It’s quite an unfortunate time for everyone around the world. For senior athletes, I think it hurts a little more. I always suspected that the season would end up being canceled but it did not actually hit me until today. Receiving the news really hurt me and it is truly a tough pill to swallow, however, if it means that people will remain healthy, then it is probably a smart decision. At this point there is not anything I can do but remain hopeful that the future brings better days and I can continue to perfect my craft. (Sylvester is committed to Seton Hall University).

Mike Sheppard, Jr., head coach, Seton Hall Prep: Watching the Governor announce the continuation of remote learning and the cancellation of the baseball season, my thoughts went immediately to my senior players. How must they feel that their high school careers have come to an abrupt end through no fault of their own? How are they dealing with the bitter taste of disappointment? Your senior school year and season is supposed to be special.

I called and spoke to each senior player regarding the pandemic and the domino effect it has had on the normalcy of our lives. Every player I spoke with, although upset, agreed with the Governor’s decision. What is going on in our country health wise and financially is much bigger than baseball. I was proud of their unselfish and mature response.

The game of baseball teaches us life skills such as perseverance, the ability to adjust and the importance of being positive. This year’s seniors had to put those lessons immediately to use when dealing with COVID 19. (Sheppard, Jr. has a 35-year career record of 790-208-4).

Dan Hanczaryk, Delaware Valley: When I found out today that my senior season was canceled, I thought about what could have been. It was my last chance to play with fellow seniors who I have played with since I was 8 years old. As a team we never thought that our baseball careers could end unexpectedly like this, since many of us won’t be playing at a collegiate level. Although I’ll miss my teammates, I’m glad I got to spend my career with them. Some things are out of our control, but I’ll have these memories forever.(Hanczaryk is committed to DeSales University).

Chris Roof, head coach, Gov. Livingston: Today is a tough day. I think we all knew it was coming, but when it hits you right in your gut that it’s over then it really hurts. My heart breaks for my 11 seniors. Luckily we have five going on to play in college, but six kids will never play the game they love again. At the end of the day though, with people losing loved ones, it puts life in perspective for all of us. Unfortunately our senior players are learning a tough lesson in life that things you work for your entire life can quickly be taken away. I hope when people can get back on the playing fields that they’ll always give it their all because, again, it can be taken away in a heartbeat. (Gov. Livingston won Group 2 titles in 2011 and ’15 under Roof).

Gov. Livingston coach Chris Roof

Alex Stone, Newton: When I found I was going to lose my senior season, my stomach immediately felt like there was a pit inside. I’ve learned to take nothing for granted and to play every game like it’s my last. (Stone is committed to Duke).

Chris Banos, head coach, Somerville: Though we lost a lot of really good players from last year’s team, I was really excited to see what this year’s team could accomplish. They worked really hard in the offseason and we had some really competitive practices leading up to the cancellation. (Banos’ 2018 team won the Group 3 championship).

Mostly I feel bad for our seniors, especially the guys who are not playing baseball in college. To not be able to finish it on the field will be tough.

Matt Gluck, West Morris: Hearing the news was devastating. Everyone looks forward to their senior season and being stripped away from it is indescribable. Countless hours of time spent for this season and to tell the whole senior class that we cannot play one more year of high school ball almost does not seem real. But that’s the way life goes. Obstacles are thrown at you and it’s all about what you are going to do about those bumps in the road. That’s what separates the good players from the great players. I guess the saying is really true. Play every game like it’s your last. I want to say to all of my friends, and this would have been their last time throwing on the cleats, I am truly sorry. (Gluck’s team was the 2019 Group 3 runner-up).

Matt Gluck had hoped to chase another sectional championship with West Morris.

Kevin Cust, head coach, Immaculata: It’s just surreal. It’s like a bad dream that you can’t wake up from. I feel so much for my seniors who won’t get a chance to play their last season of high school baseball, and some, the last season they will ever play.  I definitely miss my guys and miss what could have been a great year. (Cust’s Immaculata team won the past two Somerset County Tournament championships).

Greg Bozzo, Ridge: It’s taken a long time to find the right words describing something like this. The final chapter we all hoped for, we all worked for is not happening. But with that said, it doesn’t mean it is gone completely, just delayed is all. Fortunately some of us get to play at the next level and we may finish up the story there or even further on. But thank you to the seniors who have laced up and dusted them off for the last time. For the kids that just want to play ball their last year, I am truly sorry for them. (Bozzo is committed to LaSalle).

Greg Bozzo had big plans for he and his Ridge teammates before the coronavirus ended their season.

Bruce Shatel, head coach, Delbarton: I am saddened that I will not be able to see my team compete this spring.  There is nothing better than watching young men rise to the challenges that our players are faced with for three months. I am going to miss watching them deal with the adversity this sport throws their way every day and I will miss watching them grind it out. I will miss watching their excitement when they thrive in a big spot. There is nothing like being part of a team and the bond players form when they depend on each other in good moments and bad. And, at Delbarton, to play on Fleury Field and to experience the smell of fresh cut grass and the sun beating down in May and June on that field, it just doesn’t get any better. My heart aches for all my players, especially my seniors. I don’t have the words to express my disappointment for them. There aren’t any. I love coaching and I love my team. (Delbarton won Non-Public A state titles in 2017 and ’19 and reached the 2018 final under Shatel).

Scott Illiano, head coach, Wayne Hills: As baseball coaches we’re used to dealing with a lot that forces you to become flexible. We usually run the gamut: from blizzards in March and sharing gym space with other sports programs, to days out on the field when it’s freezing cold, or times in April when you get hammered with rain. Of course any team has to battle through injuries and different forms of adversity have inevitably come to be expected. But, this is almost unimaginable. It’s like Stephen King couldn’t make it up, but it’s actually happening and we’re living through it. 

First and foremost I’m terrified about the health and well being of so many affected people both here and worldwide.

I think human nature sort of makes you reflect upon what your normal routine would ordinarily look like during the shut down. There are so many aspects about the baseball season that I miss right now. I could rattle off a laundry list but it’s probably too many to even name. But, most of all you just miss the people involved and the daily interactions that you have with them. Picture the greatest vacation that you’ve ever had and that melancholy feeling that comes over you on the very last day while you’re packing up your suitcase. Now, multiply that same feeling by 50 days. 

I think Governor Murphy’s announcement today gave us some closure to something that rationally we have been bracing for, but emotionally we really just didn’t want to accept. I think the baseball junky in all of us has been holding out hope realizing that the season has been on life support for some time now. I just really feel for all of the kids. I wish there was something I could say or do to take their sorrow away right now, and feel entirely helpless in knowing that I can’t. (West Essex won the 2010 Group 2 championship under Illiano, who coached at West Essex 20 years and was beginning his third year at Wayne Hills).

Kyle Mahady, Nazareth (Pa.): When I first found out there was going to be no baseball this spring for the PIAA, it really put me in shock. This was the senior year myself and my fellow seniors worked for and looked forward to throughout their baseball careers. For most of us, this is the first spring we haven’t had baseball to clear our heads, play with friends and teammates, compete for our school, and have a lot of fun doing so. It’s really put baseball in a new perspective for me. Having this spring season ripped away has been a huge learning lesson for me to lay it all out on the field when we do play. We never know just when our last inning may be. (Pennsylvania closed its schools for the academic year on April 9).

Immaculata coach Kevin Cust, right, is certainly missing interacting with his players.

Frank Malta, head coach, Jackson Memorial: I was really under the impression that when we shut down we were doing it at the right time to be proactive, but I think we found out that we were too late. What we thought might be a couple weeks quickly but yet slowly has turned into this. I cannot believe that it is May 5 today. It seems like the few days of our 2020 season was so long ago. 

I think we all knew this was inevitable. As the timeline kept getting pushed back and we saw all of these different pro, summer, little leagues getting shut down, we were just a matter of time. 

My guys have handled it as well as you can expect. They are doing schoolwork, working out to stay strong and in shape. Our contact has been over Google Meet and has been good. We just catch up, lots of phone conversation and texts. 

With people very sick, and others losing their battle and passing away, you step back for a moment and realize we can’t take the chance of attempting to play.

We are fortunate to have a lot of seniors who are moving on with the opportunity to play at the next level. It’s the seniors that are not playing at the next level that would have had this last season and opportunity to play or be a part of this. They wanted one last ride with their guys that they grew up with and played with their whole lives. They now become just “regular students” in college. They didn’t get a chance for the last time to be a student athlete their senior year on the baseball field. 

Our younger guys lose out on the experience of watching these guys work everyday in practice. How they go about their business, so that they know how to do it when they are seniors. That is a big deal in our program and a lot of other programs in the state. They get to see how guys respond in pressure game-changing spots. They get to see how they respond to adversity, etc.

There are also so many players that lose out on that year of experience and development. We knew this was coming but to finally hear the words made it reality. (Jackson Memorial won the 2014 Group 4 title under Malta and was a favorite in the group entering this season)

Mike Horn, North Hunterdon: I had given the season a lot of hope, feeling we would eventually get out there on the fields. Once the news officially hit that our season was over, it broke me. Senior year was supposed to be THE year. That final season when you’ve become your strongest, both physically and mentally, and you really want to shine on the field. It’s also the last time we get to play ball with our friends and teammates, some of who we have played with since Little League. We were all going to be in total sync this season. It’s a real downer we will miss out on all that.

At this point, I can just treat this as any baseball slump, knowing there will be a time where we will pull through this. I am hopeful there may be a chance for a summer league and, perhaps, some of us can get that chance to play together one last time. (Horn is committed to Washington College, Md.).

Mike Horn of North Hunterdon has taken the loss of his senior season hard.

Mike Policastro, head coach, Bloomfield: Distress is what I’m going through. I wait patiently for the spring to arrive so I can do what has driven me most the past 26 years, coaching high school baseball. Our players have been waiting to see if their hard work in the weight room all year pays off. They worked hard in the classroom, prepared during winter workouts for the coming season, hoping that they did enough for our team to be successful. We waited month after month, checking grades, setting up workout schedules, calling colleges for undecided seniors, trying to find a place to play for the select few we had this year. Telling my players to stay ready, giving daily workouts and videos, trying to stay ready and keeping the faith for almost two months, only to have our hearts ripped out.

We had daily Google meetings with players and parents trying to keep spirits up. There’s no other way to say it but I was totally crushed for the seniors who will never suit up again, but also for the first time varsity underclass players who now lose a valuable year of experience. It is soul crushing. (Policastro’s 2008 team won the Section 1, Group 4 championship).

Gavin Stellpflug, Somerville: When I found out I was losing my senior season the only words I could find was ‘what could have been.’ I spent nearly every day of the school year up to the last day working out, throwing and building a bond with my teammates. I was ready to be the guy that answers for the team and my teammates were hungry to play. (Stellpflug has committed to University of Maryland). 

Kevin Cuozzi, Hunterdon Central: My heart really goes out to all the seniors more than anything else. The reality is, Hunterdon Central baseball will be here for me next year, it will be here for all the returners, but the seniors are the ones who really lost something.  For four years the seniors have completely committed to the culture of our program, worked their way through, finally got a chance to make it their own, but won’t get the opportunity to see it play out.  Although many of our seniors do go on to play at a higher level, some do not, and senior season is ultimately the end of a chapter in many of their lives, the last chance to really play baseball for something meaningful. Seeing that taken away is the biggest heartbreak. (Cuozzi steered his team to the Group 4 championship in 2018).

Mitch Powitz, longtime assistant coach, Toms River South, in a tweet: On behalf of TRS head coach Ken Frank, myself and coaches Brett Hardie and Dave Fanslau, I just want to say the 2020 Indians will go down as a tremendous, enthusiastic and baseball-loving group of players. You guys are unbeaten, undefeated and unscored upon. You will do great things in the future as you make your way out in the “real world.” (Frank has a state leading 894 career wins).

Delbarton coach Bruce Shatel, right, goes over grounds rules with Morristown coach Ed Collins.

Johnathan Travisano, Bridgewater-Raritan: When I heard the news about the season, I was annoyed and a little angry, because I still had a sliver of hope. As the day went on, I realized that it was out of our control and, deep down; I knew it was going to happen. (Jon is committed to Elizabethtown, Pa.).

Brian Chapman, head coach, Millburn: Even though I was not at all surprised by the announcement, it still hit pretty hard. I haven’t really stopped to consider what it means to me or even to our underclassmen yet. At this point, I am still focused on our eight seniors, six of which may never play competitive baseball again.

Over the past few weeks, I had been trying to balance preparing them for the inevitable, with motivating them to stay positive and ready for some type of season that may or may not happen. But that changed quickly yesterday. Our zoom meeting yesterday had that feeling of finality to it, like collecting uniforms in June after our playoff run is finished. It was terribly sad.

We speak all the time in our program about doing whatever it takes to get the job done, making the most of non-traditional situations and finding opportunity in our failures. But let’s be real. When we are preaching that to them, they are equating most of it to difficult challenges they face ON A BASEBALL FIELD. Getting behind in the count as a hitter, overcoming an error in the field, or having a game postponed because of weather.

All of a sudden, those lessons, those foundations of our program, took on increased meaning yesterday. We weren’t talking about a tough loss on the road at Nutley. We were talking about perhaps the most challenging and difficult situation some of these guys will ever face. For many of them it’s the first time dealing with real pain and loss. Their senior season that they worked so hard for is gone.

I could see it in their eyes. Little nods and half smiles as they realized all of those funny little sayings Coach has been hammering at us for four years. They are more important than ever now. And I could see them making the connections. How those beliefs we try to instill in them were going to be what enables them to power through this. It was pretty powerful.

It’s very sad. Our hope as coaches is that our boys can take the lessons we’ve tried to instill in them to manage their way through these incredibly difficult times. (Millburn won Group 4 titles in 2015 and ’17 under Chapman).

Rain, snow, oppressive heat would all be welcomed right now by Pope John coach Vinnie Bello.

Vin Bello, head coach, Pope John: It’s hard to wrap my head around it. There is no season.

As a kid, as a college player and as a coach my whole life the spring and summer meant one thing, baseball. It was the competition with others, the highs and lows of a season, the defeats and the sweet victories. They are all cherished in each and every season.

The sounds, the smells and passion of the game all come together in every season. We will be stronger after this. We will have another season. But for now, THIS ONE HURTS. (Bello’s 2011 Pope John team reached the Non-Public A state final).

Joe Smith, head coach, Delsea: It’s a very unfortunate situation for, first and foremost, the seniors, but for all players, coaches and parents. The kids have two choices at this point. Work harder, especially the seniors playing college. That goes for any athlete. Shut it down and pout about it. I would expect most choose option one. Lastly, maybe this situation will help kids understand when coaches say practice and play like it’s your last time ever. (Smith’s 2015 Williamstown team went to the Group 4 final).

Mark Rizzi, head coach, Randolph: As a coach, the players are always your primary concern. Losing the season is extremely disappointing but it pales in comparison to how it affects the team. I sense the players are confused and emotionally exhausted. Their entire life has been turned upside down and at their age, that’s very hard to deal with.  More than the competition, I think they, specifically the seniors, miss bonding with each other and the chance to experience a season’s highs and lows together. But my message has been, “As an athlete, you  are strong and resilient. Dealing with adversity is a skill you have mastered. You are going to come out of this just fine.” Maybe the best bonding experience is that we will all have a story to tell about the 2020 season that wasn’t. (Rizzi has coached a total of 39 years in high school and college, including 17 years at Rutgers Newark).

There will be no state championship celebrations this season thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Somerville players, above, enjoy their 2018 Group 3 championship victory.

Veteran and highly respected high school sports reporter Greg Tufaro provides equally valuable perspective as someone who has interacted with high school athletes for three decades. (Many high school reporters have been furloughed or laid off during the pandemic and many will not return to their trade before September).

Greg Tufaro, MyCentralJersey.com: I’ve talked to several high school players and have the utmost admiration and respect for the mature, almost analytical approach they’ve taken to the season’s cancellation. Their thoughts and prayers are with all COVID-19 has impacted and with those who are on the front lines battling the coronavirus. They know what they’ve lost obviously pales in comparison to those dealing with the ineffable and incomprehensible loss of a loved one, such as the Cliffside Park school-community with the passing of head coach Ben Luderer, who was just 30 years old. 

That having been said, these student-athletes and the adults who support them should not be criticized for feeling devastated over a lost season. Because of the countless life lessons it teaches, camaraderie it creates and character it builds, baseball is exponentially more than just a game. As a former sub-varsity scholastic player, former high school freshman baseball coach (St. Joseph of Metuchen) and now sportswriter who has been privileged to cover the game for 30 years, I understand almost as well as anyone that the diamond, when used properly, can be an effective classroom.

I am crestfallen for the players, especially the seniors who are not going to continue their careers in college. They are missing out on so much more than taking the field one final time with their teammates and coaches and the lifetime of memories which accompanies that experience. Anybody who doesn’t understand that likely never swung a bat or threw a ball at the high school level.

I take solace in knowing baseball players, who deal with disappointment on a daily basis, as reflected in their batting averages, are remarkably resilient. Lessons the game taught these kids will serve them well during these unprecedented times.

Diamond Nation is in the same holding pattern as the rest of the state and region, awaiting the go-ahead to open its spring and summer programs. Meanwhile, we continue to work remotely with our players and wish our seniors the best as they continue to prepare for the next level of ball. Diamond Nation’s director of recruiting Steve DiTrolio, a former assistant at Somerville High, certainly has been deeply effected by the loss of the high school season.

“I feel absolutely terrible for everyone involved, but I feel the most for the seniors,” says DiTrolio. “Your senior year is always special, a culmination of everything you work for during your high school career. They all start at the bottom, pay their dues, climb to the top and now its their turn to lead and leave their mark. They are going to miss that experience, what it means to have everyone look up to them for direction and leadership.

“All I can leave them with is, don’t let this define you. Learn from this experience and use it to become a better player and, more importantly, a better person.”

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