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COMMUNITY SPORTS: COVID-19 puts area athletic coaches in unchartered territory

By Loren Kopff• @LorenKopff on Twitter

While school districts across the Southland had already made the decision to shut down their schools for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year weeks ago, nothing was made official as far as the remainder of the spring athletic season. That is until the CIF-Southern Section put out a press release last Friday stating that the games and championships would be cancelled.

Beginning on Monday, there would have been three weeks remaining in the regular season and teams were getting ready for the second half of their respective league seasons as well as participation in spring break tournaments. Still, area coaches and players were crossing their fingers, hopeful that something could be salvaged for this season.

“At first, when I heard the news, I was hopeful that it would be a short period of time,” said Gahr High softball head coach Rey Sanchez. “And then, of course as things got a little bit more serious, it turned into disbelief. I feel so sad for our young ladies that worked so hard and they looked so forward to this season, especially the high school season. Travel ball is one thing, but when you play for your high school, it’s a different level. It’s a different level of responsibility and it’s a different level of people wanting to come out watching your teammates.”

Sanchez said the girls were finding information through social media before he was, beginning with the tail end of the second week in March. But they kept asking if the season was going to be over. Sanchez didn’t want to jump to any conclusion, but they did have to prepare for anything that could happen.

“The conversation never happened [with] me telling them that it’s official because we weren’t together,” Sanchez said. “They closed our school on [Mar. 13]. I just told them that I would be in touch with them and I would let them know what our next steps are. There was nothing that was confirmed. Our school had only announced that we weren’t going to have school for the next couple of days.”

Sanchez said his initial thought was to have to have practice because the school had not said anything about teams practicing or not practicing. Plus, the original plan when schools were shut down was to play games without spectators. Sanchez said he would been okay with that as opposed to no games at all.

“Oh, we all were [hopeful],” he said. “There was still that chance and I had a lot of text messages from our girls asking if there was still a chance. But of course, if you hear the news for about five to 10 minutes, you realize that they’re not going to let you [play].”

Gahr had played six games this season, winning each one by one run. The Lady Gladiators had played a pair of pool play games in the Torrance National Tournament, including a 7-6 come from behind win against Culver City High. The team was to play three more in the tournament before travelling to La Mirada High on Mar. 18. Gahr was seeking its seventh straight San Gabriel Valley League title.

 

 

“I know that the young ladies I have are really special young ladies,” Sanchez said. “I was with them day in and day out and I saw the work and the effort and the attitude they gave every day. Our very last game was such a nice comeback. We were down 5-0 and it was kind of symbolic of their fight. We kind of chipped away and chipped away the energy was fantastic. I’ll take the 6-0 record, but not the short season, obviously. If there was any silver lining, it was that we finished on a really good high comeback win in that Torrance Tournament.”

Sanchez added that he’s hopeful this ends quickly, and it ends with things getting better for the families. As far as Gahr softball, he said they’re going to do what they do. The team will go out and try to work every day and have the right mindset everyday once they get the go to return to the field.

It has been a similar story with the Cerritos High baseball team, who was off to another solid start, having won five of its first three games. The Dons were supposed to play Narbonne High on Mar. 11 but pushed that game back due to inclement weather. The team was then to play on Mar. 13, but it rained as well. Head coach Brooks Walling, who as of this past Monday, has yet to have a full discussion with the team, has seen just a handful of players face to face. He did send a message to the players to keep their heads up during these tough times and if they need anything, not to hesitate to call him.

“We run a group chat deal with one of these apps called remind and we fire off a text message here and there keeping in touch with the guys,” Walling said.

Cerritos was aiming for its second straight 605 League title and would have hosted a doubleheader with Villa Park High on Saturday before heading up the coast to Paso Robles for the Central Coast Tournament Wednesday through Friday. The team was set on building off last season’s 21-8 campaign, the school’s best in over two decades, and had the tools to do so, with 17 seniors.

“I have 17 seniors this year and I’m still trying to figure out a way to salvage something for these kids,” Walling said. “It’s something we’ve looked forward to since they enrolled. We had a good squad when they came in as freshmen and we’ve added some key pieces to the puzzle. This year was supposed to be a real special year for us.

“It’s heartbreaking, to be honest with you,” he continued. “Guys like [senior pitcher/shortstop Evan] Vazquez, [senior center fielder Raul] Garcia, [senior second baseman Alex] Manibusan…those guys who have done four years…and they got something taken away from them. Nobody knows why yet. But like I told these kids, there’s nothing you can do besides keep your nose down, keep working and the next opportunity is going to come.”

Walling said he was trying to come up with ideas of having a two-day tournament, or a single elimination tournament with the games possibly at John Glenn High because its field has lights. He is also trying to figure out how to have a banquet and might consider a summer barbeque or an over the line tournament in July. He added that some of the players have been hitting in each other’s backyard and trying to keep their distance. As far as the immediate future, Walling isn’t even planning for the summer in terms of putting games together and is not sure how the two-week summer dead period will work.

According to a press release the CIF-SS sent out late last week, the COVID-19 situation does not have an effect on the summer dead period and schools cannot choose the summer dead period during school days. It went on to say that while students are not on campus, they are still receiving educational services and there will still be a last day of school.

“At the end of the day, it’s about these kids and to make sure they somehow salvage some kind of memory about their senior year other than they didn’t get to play [a full season],” Walling said.

Whitney High, which is not known for its athletic program as much as the other schools, is reeling just as much as the other schools and was headed towards what may had been a “special spring for us”, according to athletic director Jeff Day on an individual basis. Senior Ola Ogan, a 4.0 student, was going for multiple school records in track and was hoping for a track or girls volleyball college scholarship. Junior Alex Mo, a two-time CIF state finalist as a diver, is one of the top three divers in the state. Junior Chizaram Izima another track athlete, was also close to breaking school records.

The baseball team, with seven seniors on a team of 11 players, was off to a 4-1 start and was primed to advanced to the playoffs for the first time in over two decades. The boys volleyball team, also with seven seniors, was expecting to battle with Cerritos for a league title. The program has never won a league title and has finished in second place twice, last season and in 2001.

There’s also reaction from basketball coaches, whose seasons had already been concluded but were still practicing and preparing for spring leagues.

“For me, I left for my birthday the weekend of Mar. 7 and when I returned, we sat together, signed some posters and we watched the [CIF-Southern Section Division 5 AA] championship game,” said Artesia High girls basketball head coach Shontya Pouncey. “At that point, I didn’t know. I had told them that I was going to let them be free through spring break, and after spring break, we would reconvene and start working towards our individual work that we do in the spring.”

Pouncey, the reigning CIF-SS Division 5 AA and HMG-Community News Coach of the Year, was going to put the Lady Pioneers in a spring league just to keep them playing consistently and then worry about how they would re-impact their summer workouts. When it was announced that school would have to be done from home, he and his daughter, Kaleila, would call every player on the team or facetime the players to make sure they had all their stuff for school and to be on top of their assignments because when they returned to school, they would have to be eligible. He told them if they could get into their garage or backyard, try to keep their dribble handle going.

“I did stress that [they] had something that most teams don’t,” Pouncey said. “[They] played a month or two later than most teams, period.”

He went on to tell them that when they returned to school, which is now not the case, they would have that team chemistry that they can build upon. He also spoke to the players about their mental mindset and how they were doing. As far as planning for a proper sendoff to officially wrap up its banner season in which friends and families can be a part of, Pouncey said he will make sure it happens.

“I told them that I would not let them go with a cheap banquet or something that’s very fast,” Pouncey said. “If we have to wait until next football season to honor them and hang the banner and get the rings and do everything that they deserved.”

Jonathan Watanabe, co-head coach of the Cerritos boys basketball team, first addressed the team on Mar. 13 when it was announced by the ABC Unified School District that schools would be closed for two weeks. Their banquet was scheduled for Mar. 20, but he said it has been rescheduled for May.

“Since then we have been texting our players every Monday with updates, information, encouragement and workouts for the week,” Watanabe said on Mar. 30. “[On] Mar. 21, we got the news that the school closure was extended until at least May 5. This was a big blow to our seniors since prom was scheduled for May 2.”

At that time, he said he was hopeful school would return on May 5 but obviously that’s not the case. And, as a longtime Los Angeles Clippers basketball fan, he was hoping the season would resume soon so he could go to as many games as possible, especially playoff games, and added that he was hoping to go to his first Clippers NBA Finals game soon. The fate of the NBA is still up in the air as of now.

 

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