PIAA cancellation hits Mt. Pleasant WPIAL champion swimmer hard

Friday, April 10, 2020 | 8:32 PM

The sight of a team full of high school swimmers huddled together in the lobby of Kinney Natatorium at Bucknell, tears streaming down their faces, that’s not something Mt. Pleasant’s Heather Gardner will forget any time soon.

Frankly, the way her senior year is ending will probably be seared into her brain forever.

Hours after Gov. Tom Wolf announced Thursday afternoon that Pennsylvania schools would be closed through the end of the academic year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the PIAA canceled its suspended winter sports championships.

It was the last chapter in a sad story that began Thursday, March 12.

Gardner and her Mt. Pleasant teammates were wrapping up a 3-hour drive to Bucknell, less than 10 minutes from their destination, when Gardner got a call.

“One of my friends from Somerset, she and her team were already there,” Gardner said. “She called me and I answered. She told me the news. You think she’s joking. I’m like, ‘Are you serious?’ She said, ‘Yes, we’re here at the pool right now.’ ”

The news Gardner heard was that the PIAA decided to postpone the Class AA state meet, which was scheduled to begin the next morning. Most of the Class AAA meet had already been completed before the order to suspend came down.

“We were in two separate vehicles,” Gardner said. “There were seniors in one vehicle and we had freshmen and a couple of juniors and sophomores in the other vehicle. I told our male coach, Rob Ivory, that we needed to turn around. He was like, ‘Why?’ I was like, ‘It’s canceled.’ Everybody was like, ‘What?’

“Then we had to call the other vehicle and our head coach, Sandy Felice, and tell them. We decided to just keep driving there. We kind of wanted to hear it for ourselves. There were some people who had never been to Bucknell, so they just kind of wanted to see it. We did continue driving there.”

The coaches made their way to the pool deck to get an update. The swimmers had to stay in the lobby, waiting for their coaches to return with the bad news.

“It’s devastating,” Gardner said. “There were a lot of tears that day.”

The meet was supposed to be the culmination of a decorated career for Gardner.

A six-time WPIAL champion, Gardner had yet to claim PIAA gold, but this was her year. She was seeded first in the 50 free, the odds-on favorite to bring home Mt. Pleasant’s first PIAA swimming gold with a legitimate shot at breaking the meet record. She also had a chance to win the 100 breaststroke, an event for which she was seeded fourth.

Gardner was also swimming on the 200 free relay team with Cally Hixson, McKenna Mizikar and Ashlyn Hornick and the 400 free relay team with her sister, freshman SaraJo Gardner, Reegan Brown and Hixson.

“It still bothers me,” Gardner said. “That last one was the most important. Being there with my team, having good relay teams seeded really well, being seeded first in the 50, it just made it all surreal. It’s hard. You feel like you’ve worked for the last four years almost for nothing.”

While Thursday’s news was tough to take, Gardner’s swimming career is far from over.

In fact, shortly after the PIAA’s cancelation announcement Thursday, Gardner was on a Zoom conference call with the rest of Liberty University’s incoming freshmen on the swim team.

“It was good to talk to them,” Gardner said. “For some of them, states have also been canceled in their state. It’s good to have them to talk to as your future teammates. They know what you’re going through.”

Gardner is scheduled to move in at Liberty at the end of August, and she’s optimistic that won’t be delayed.

Until stay-at-home restrictions are lifted and recreational facilities reopen, though, Gardner is left feeling like a fish out of water.

“My really good friend has a 7-yard pool at their house. I’ve been there a couple of times, but there’s only so much you can do,” Gardner said. “I’ve taken breaks before, but this is more than a break.”

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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