Nobody Told Me There’d Be Days Like These, Strange Indeed

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COVID-19 has taken a toll on every American and high school seniors like Putnam Valley’s Kelli Venezia know all too well. RAY GALLAGHER PHOTO

I didn’t always agree with Beatles legend John Lennon politically (maybe never!), but he often hit the ball out of the park: For these are “strange days indeed, most peculiar, mama.” 

As each day passes and the global pandemic – COVID-19 – drags on, the prospects of resuming the NYSPHSAA winter tournaments (hoops, hockey and bowling) are glum, chum and the impeding shutdown of spring sports is looking more and more inevitable from Little League to varsity preps. My heart goes out to the high school seniors, in particular; many of them dedicated the better part of their lifetime to laying it all on the line for their respective schools, their coaches and the athletic programs they’ve so proudly served. 

“As a fan of sports – not just a coach – I feel for the seniors on the teams across the section, and not just my own, who I had looked forward to watching play,” Lakeland/Panas boys’ lacrosse Coach Jim Lindsay said. “You spend so much time with these kids developing them from a young age, so that they have the opportunity to represent their respective schools as seniors. All senior years are special for the kids, regardless of success on the field, because it’s their last opportunity to play for a district that most of them have spent the better part of 13 years attending.”

And, regrettably, every 12-year-old across the country that envisioned playing baseball at Cooperstown this summer had their dreams crushed last Friday when Dreams Park closed for all 13 weeks of its cherished season. What do you say to that distraught child, who raised funds and practiced all year for the trip of a lifetime?

I can’t imagine being a senior on the Yorktown lacrosse team, which is a way of life in northern Westchester. The 40-time Section 1 champion Cornhuskers were on a mission to end an unheard-of two-year championship drought. I can’t imagine a spring where Yorktown lax isn’t in the thick of a championship hunt and/or challenging Lakeland/Panas in the 31st annual Charlie Murphy Cup game. The Yorktown seniors are aghast at the notion they won’t be able to make amends for the consecutive title failures in 2018-19.

“This whole thing has been unbelievably tough for me and my team,” Yorktown senior Captain Timmy O’Callaghan said. “This off-season has been the best of my time here at Yorktown and this group is one of the greatest I have ever played with. After the last two seasons of coming up short, and particularly the devastating way our season closed last year, we were more than ready this year to show the state and the country what Yorktown lacrosse is all about.”

At Yorktown, infants are groomed for senior year; lax sticks placed near the swaddle of their cribs. I kid you not. It’s as serious as anything they’ll ever do in life. For the seniors – many who began preparation for 2020 upon leaving their strollers in 2005 – it may have been done in vain. Like everyone else, though, the Huskers remain hopeful.

“This particular group, we have has been a family away from home and our chemistry is off the charts,” O’Callaghan said. “On top of this, Coach (Sean) Carney, Coach (Rob) Doerr and the rest of the coaching staff has put an incredible amount of time and effort into this year and have boosted our confidence and positivity. With that being said, we are not even close to giving up on this year yet, as there is still plenty of time for a modified schedule and playoffs, even without fans if necessary.”

Similarly, Lindsay’s Rebels, winners of three of the last six Section 1 Class A titles, were expecting to challenge yet again. Heck, an absolutely stacked Lakeland High baseball team was staring down the barrel of a third-straight Section 1 Class A title in 2020, and now the Hornets find themselves in the same rudderless ship as most programs across the country.

“To say I’m disappointed is an understatement,” said Lakeland senior pitcher Joey Vetrano, the 2019 New York State Gatorade Player of the Year. “I was so looking forward to one last ride with my teammates. We all trained hard through the off-season, and we were so excited to get back on the field. Hopefully, this virus will be under control sometime soon, so we can all get back to our regular routines.”

But it’s more than just the competition they’ve lost out on. It’s the locker room, it’s the social gatherings, the sidelines, the team dinners…it’s prom and graduation for goodness sake. The things that lock down friends for life, oftentimes friends you’ve been playing ball with since the third or fourth grade. It’s been devastating for impressionable student athletes to cope with.

“It’s honestly the worst thing that could’ve happened,” said Putnam Valley senior Kelli Venezia, an All-Section guard, who led the school to its only Section 1 Class B title in early March and into the regional finals, which were postponed for the foreseeable future, most likely forever. 

“We pushed through so many setbacks throughout the season, and no one would have thought this is how it would end. To bring the first section title home to our school was so special, but we were so excited for states. I have been playing basketball with some of the girls since I was four years old, and I get very emotional thinking that the win over Marlboro was most likely my last time ever putting on a Putnam Valley uniform. I have just been trying to see the good out of this whole situation, but I really miss my team and would give anything to play with them one more time.”

This strain of March Madness is unlike anything we’ve ever had to deal with, brackets busted across the board. “Survive and Advance” has a whole new meaning now. We will get past this, and our nation – despite its political insanity – will be stronger than ever. Our markets will roar again, our 401(k)’s will strengthen, for we are a resilient people with stupendous leadership. 

However, our seniors may never get their senior year back.

“This is one of those seminal moments where everyone needs to take a step back and reflect on the magnitude of the issue, not just in their own small towns but globally,” Lindsay said. “Several politicians have used the metaphor that ‘we’re at war,’ and that we must take necessary measures as if such was the case. I look at the situation we’re in and am thankful that we merely have to ask our kids to stay home and be safe, and that we’re not actually sending them off to a war, as many other previous generations were asked to do.”

There are different interpretations of “war” and different versions of battles across time, but it’s time to hunker down now and fight this one best we can. There are casualties in every line of combat, and the seniors in our high schools and college universities are on the front line of emotional distress, side by side with the selfless healthcare professionals, truckers, police/fire, cashiers, our president and everyone else who answers the call to duty during these trying times #StaySafeFriends and #FlattenTheCurve!

Sports Editor Ray Gallagher can be found on Twitter: @Directrays

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