ROCKFORD – Running is more than exercise, it’s therapy. That’s what Jonah Garcia says. So he’s training now harder than ever. Garcia’s a senior distance runner on Auburn High School’s track & field team in Rockford.
Peter Medlin reports from Rockford.
Like so many spring athletes, Jonah had his final high school season stolen by the COVID-19 pandemic. He says he was feeling good about the season and had personal records he figured he could easily break.
“I was hoping to go Division-1 and maybe try and get a scholarship based off of my times this year,” he said.
But, luckily, this isn’t the end for Garcia. He’ll be running at Iowa Central Community College next year.
And running and talking to his coaches and teammates has been a salve, he says, as his high school journey winds down in the most unpredictable way possible.
“Basically, people are saying just something along the lines of control that which you can control,” said Garcia.
Many spring athletes aren’t continuing to the collegiate level. They took their last swings and ran their last lap without knowing it.
Neal Bertram says he had a hard time holding it together when he found out games would be canceled. He’s been the baseball coach at Rockford Lutheran for 35 years.
“We were in the middle of practice and I was kind of was stunned when I got the message,” he said.
It’s a bit harder to keep practicing baseball in quarantine. Bertram hopes it’s at least bringing families closer and giving his players time to reflect.
“They’ve had the chance to maybe play catch more with their dad,” said Bertram.
Or maybe they’ve had time to watch old games and appreciate the history of their sport while current pro games are canceled.
Cyrus Wimberly has been sending his players training drills from YouTube. He’s the baseball coach at Jefferson High School in Rockford.
The J-Hawks had just handed out uniforms and taken team pictures when the news rolled in.
“The train was getting ready to get going,” he said. “You know, we were getting ready for the season to start.”
Now, he knows the IHSA tournaments are canceled. But, he’s still wondering if he and his team should hold onto hope that there could be games of some kind this summer. It’s not clear yet.
“The communication, it’s been a little off and on but, you know, it’s that’s what’s going on in the world right now,” said Wimberly.
Many schools are figuring out ways to honor seniors. They participate in the “Lights For The Fight” initiative. Every Friday night, schools turn on the lights at their athletic fields to show support for senior athletes, as well as essential workers and first responders.
Katie Barnett is the girls’ soccer coach at Guilford High School in Rockford. Players all got team jackets. The Vikings handed out yard signs too.
“We had probably the most talent coming into the season that we’ve had in as long as I can remember,” she said.
Barnett says she’s struggled with how much hope she should give her team about possible games. Both Barnett and Neal Bertram say they didn’t want to overwhelm their teams while the students still have e-learning to work on too.
So, Barnett says, she’s talked to her girls over text and given them lighthearted reminders of where the season would be.
“You know, when we play Freeport I’m like, eat a bag of pretzels today,” said Barnett.
They’ve also been virtually celebrating college signings on their team. Olivia Zediker is one of the seniors. She’ll also be playing soccer at the next level.
“It was definitely heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s like I’m letting go of that part of me without like a proper goodbye.”
Zediker says she and her friends on the team have instead tried to focus on the good times over their last three years of soccer.
While the IHSA hasn’t made any changes to fall sports, it’s something athletic directors like Rockford’s Mat Parker are considering.
“There certainly could be significant provisions in place to have smaller crowds and smaller audiences,” said Parker.
Those measures mirror proposals of what professional sports could look like when they come back.
Parker says he and his colleagues are thinking about what games they could televise or stream online if large groups are still prohibited.
Cyrus Wimberly at Jefferson is thinking about the day his team gets to step back onto the diamond. He says they won’t take it for granted.
“I think that’s how athletes should approach every game is, ‘Hey, this is my last game,’ ‘cause again, some high school kids, they might not get that chance.” said Wimberly.
And he says whenever that game comes — even if it’s just an ordinary high school exhibition — for the team, it’s going to feel like the Super Bowl.