High school athletes struggle with PIAA’s decision to cancel winter, spring sports

Thursday, April 9, 2020 | 8:25 PM

Liv Kelly figured this news was coming. It didn’t make it any easier to take.

On Thursday afternoon, Gov. Tom Wolf announced all Pennsylvania schools would be shut down for the rest of the academic year. A few hours later, the PIAA canceled its suspended winter sports championships and the entire spring sports season.

Kelly, a senior track star at Burrell, went through a range of emotions.

First, she was crushed.

“I just completely broke down,” Kelly said. “I think I cried for three-and-a-half hours. I don’t know. I just wasn’t ready for it to happen this quickly. I didn’t think they were going to call it this early.”

Then, she started to remember the good times, like Burrell’s 400-meter relay team winning a state title last season.

“I looked back at some old pictures, and it made me more upset,” Kelly said. “But then I started to realize I ended it the way I think anybody would want to end their track career, with a state championship. I just thought, you know, I did what I wanted to do in the first place. I completed what I wanted to accomplish.”

Finally, Kelly looked at the big picture.

“I’m grateful this is the only thing I’m worried about and upset about because there’s so many far worse things that could be happening right now,” Kelly said. “The world is a scary place, and I’m grateful and blessed that I’m safe right now.”

For athletes still alive in the winter sports championships, the cancelation was a particularly cruel blow.

In basketball, the state tournament had reached the quarterfinal round.

In swimming, the PIAA held most of its Class AAA meet, but halted the Class AA event hours before it was set to begin March 12. Mt. Pleasant senior Heather Gardner was the favorite to win state gold in the 50-yard freestyle.

“It’s really hard,” Gardner said. “You work for this. I’ve been looking forward to this (state meet) for the last four years. As soon as you go to preschool, they tell you you’re the Class of 2020. You don’t really know what that means. You get older and that’s what you wait for. It’s a big milestone in your life. Now that it’s taken away, it’s hard.”

Athletes in spring sports went through preseason practices and maybe a scrimmage or two before their seasons were suspended.

“My first reaction was heartbroken,” Knoch senior pitcher Amanda Fischer said. “Not knowing that last year was going to be my last season, I think I took all the practices I did have this season for granted.”

Fischer, one of the top pitchers in the WPIAL, will play softball at IUP next season. Not all area seniors are that lucky.

“My heart goes out to them,” Fisher said. “The senior athletes in general who aren’t going on to play in college, they really did play their last game and they didn’t know it.”

Some schools have discussed the possibility of holding graduation ceremonies and proms once it’s safe to do so. That would provide something for disappointed seniors to look forward to.

“If they were to plan it in the summer, I would definitely do it because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Fischer said. “You only get one graduation and one prom. I know a lot of girls already have prom dresses.”

Greensburg Central Catholic Paul Rice, a senior from Leechburg, is one of the top catchers in the WPIAL.

He was expecting a big senior year for himself and his team, but Thursday’s announcement wasn’t about batting averages or win-loss records.

“I was really looking forward to going far this year. We had all the tools,” Rice said. “Even if we didn’t, though, it’s still sad. There’s nothing like those team bus rides, the team bonding experiences, just getting to know your guys and messing around during practice, all that kind of stuff.”

Before the cancelation announcement was a few hours old, Rice was already thinking up plans for a reunion of his Centurions teammates as soon as possible.

“I reached out to all of them, saying that maybe once the quarantine’s over, we can put together a little sandlot game just so we can all get the chance to play together again,” Rice said. “It’s really sad that we didn’t realize the last time we played together was the last time.”

Jonathan Bombulie is the TribLive assistant sports editor. A Greensburg native, he was a hockey reporter for two decades, covering the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for 17 seasons before joining the Trib in 2015 and covering the Penguins for four seasons, including Stanley Cup championships in 2016-17. He can be reached at jbombulie@triblive.com.

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