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High school coaches like to preach to their athletes about controlling what they can control.
That advice has never been more valuable than right now, as high school spring seasons across the country have been postponed due to the rapid COVID-19 spread. The IHSA set a target date of Wednesday, March 30, for the season to resume, but that’s nowhere near guaranteed.
The possibility of no spring sports at all in Illinois is very much in play.
“Everybody is crushed, especially the seniors,” Highland Park High School softball player Grace Spencer said. “It’s their last year, it’s their senior year, and it could possibly be canceled.”
Yet coaches and athletes in the area are optimistic that high school sports will return at some point this spring. That’s why local teams are working hard to stay in shape while practicing social distancing.
Training at home
On Thursday, March 12, the Lake Forest baseball team went to hit on its home field after school. Their coach wasn’t present, since practice was officially canceled.
At that point, the Scouts went over how to work out on their own. Lake Forest captains Breck Nowik, Michael Vallone and Connor Morrison kept it simple for their teammates.
“Stay in shape, do what you can considering the circumstances,” Nowik said. “Go outside, go for a run if you want to, just giving them the option to do what they want to do. We don’t want to be together too much just in case.”
Nowik has a batting cage in his backyard and a weight room in his garage that he and his brother Cade use to be prepared physically for the return of the season.
Glenbrook North pitcher Tyler Chron has also been using his backyard for training, often throwing the ball with his dad. Chron says once or twice a week he’ll simulate pitching in a game.
Of course, it’s still a challenge for Chron and his teammates to stay focused without his teammates around.
“I think it’s pretty tough,” Chron said. “I’m throwing bullpens Monday and Fridays, just like I was pitching for my team. Just mentally I’m trying to be ready once the season starts.”
To deal with the isolation, some teammates have worked out together in groups of two in order to avoid large groups. Running outside is another great option for staying fit.
Siblings of high school athletes have proven to be a big help as well. Spencer said she’s gone on bike rides with her little brother and has worked out at home with her little sister.
Spencer said she’s also reflecting on the mental side of softball while she has the time by reading books about the game.
“It’s not something I’ll normally get to do when I’m working out all the time regularly,” Spencer said. “It’s nice to get some time to understand the mental side and work out and be with my siblings also and work out with them.”
Coaching from the couch
The people best suited to help student-athletes with training are coaches. Since they’re not allowed to hold team practices on their own, North Shore coaches scrambled to come up with workout plans for their players while also prioritizing safety.
Loyola girls lacrosse junior Ellie Lazzaretto said Rambler strength coaches Jeff Lindeman and Sarah Conway have been sending the team running and lifting workouts they can do on their own. Lazzaretto said the coaches, as well as the seniors on the team, will message the team regularly with different training drills.
“Every day they’ll text us and send us different wall ball routines to keep the stick in our hands and a running routine for the day,” Lazzaretto said. “Depending on what you have access to, you can do something like going on a run or a treadmill workout or something like that.”
Jim Davis is the strength and conditioning coordinator at New Trier. He said social distancing has changed how he usually trains athletes; he’s making sure Trevians are focusing on being physically prepared for the return of spring sports.
“It’s uncharted territory, but it’s kind of a cool challenge because it forces us out of our comfort zone as coaches,” Davis said. “It forces us to think really clearly about what’s important. You usually get romanced by numbers like number of squats or fast 40 times, and this is really forcing us to come back to the basics of strength.”
With teams not allowed to gather, it’s on the athletes to stay in game shape on their own. But that doesn’t stop coaches from sending them workout plans from afar.
“We want to give them something to stay engaged, something to stay excited about,” Regina girls soccer coach Katie Bak said. “We’re trying to find the opportunity for hope and excitement instead of the sadness the kids may be dealing with without playing.”
Keeping in touch
The hardest part of the delayed spring season for the athletes is not being with their teammates every day. Teams have been using group chats to stay in touch and share workouts and drills.
Glenbrook South softball player Julie Bass said the Titans got together the day spring sports at GBS were postponed to come up with a game plan. The team captains are in charge of making sure the team is training regularly, and the coaches send the players workouts.
“I’ve been doing those, making sure to stretch and hitting in the garage and outside,” Bass said. “We’ve been sending photos of ourselves in our group chat sweaty to make sure we’re doing that. We’re also making sure we’re keeping up with the healthy eating since we’re stuck in quarantine.”
Nowik said the Scouts baseball players have been sending photos of their workouts as well. Keeping the team’s spirits up is important at this time, when student-athletes may be feeling isolated and upset about the situation. Group chats are the best way that captains can keep the team together and focused.
“We keep in touch with everyone,” Nowik said. “We have a group chat, they’re always like ‘We’re hitting right now,’ we’re keeping that team culture up and team morale just in case it does resume, which hopefully it does. The guys are doing a good job of staying active.”
A difficult time
No matter how much teams keep in touch and work out, it’s still a difficult situation that coaches and athletes are in. Regular-season games should have been played already; instead, there’s still plenty of uncertainty about the spring season.
“I think it’s been hard for us because we all want to be out there competing,” Chron said. “I think everyone wants to keep a positive mind set and keep working and being ready when it’s time for us to come out and play again.”
There are so many skills that could possibly be lost if the season is postponed any further. Some skills needed to properly field in softball or baseball are based on muscle memory, and without team practices, players like Bass are in danger of seeing those skills weakened while in isolation. It can create bad habits.
All that players and coaches can do is pick each other up, stay motivated, and remember what’s still at stake. Local teams may still get the chance to compete for a conference championship, a win over a rival, even a state title.
It’s even more important for seniors to remain focused, as they may never take the field for their high school again. The seniors on the Loyola girls lacrosse team have no choice but to remain positive and confident.
“It’s a really unfortunate situation, but I think they’re the perfect group to get us through it,” Lazzaretto said. “It’s so easy for us to lose focus of what we’re working toward and sit around and be lazy, but the seniors have really engrained the idea that we’re working for something and at the end of it, it will all be worth it.”
Additional reporting by sports editors Michael Wojtychiw and Michal Dwojak.