By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – The sadness, the overwhelming sense of melancholy and dejection, is now viral. What was originally scheduled as the Opening Day for high school baseball at Bedford North Lawrence turned into Closing Day for spring sports, high schools and the careers of seniors.
When Indiana’s state-level leadership announced the extension of the closure of schools through the end of the school calendar year, followed swiftly by the decision of the Indiana High School Athletic Association on Thursday afternoon to cancel the springs sports state tournaments, it was the ending many anticipated but hoped would not take place.
With the COVID-19 epidemic still spreading across the region and most of the nation, state officials – who had originally closed the schools through May 1 – decided to shut down the educational system for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year. The announcement slammed the doors, in more ways than one.
For the impacted sports of baseball, softball, boys golf, boys and girls track, girls tennis and unified track, it was an unceremonious ending. For the seniors in those sports, it was the finality of the moment.
“It’s tough, heartbreaking,” Bedford North Lawrence senior Dalton Nikirk said as the baseball season was swept away. “It’s still not real to me yet.”
BNL baseball coach Jeff Callahan, who also serves as the athletic director, stood at the back door of BNL Fieldhouse, staring down at the empty baseball field. On a gorgeous day, the best one could hope for on an early April afternoon. Perfect for baseball, for the seven seniors on his roster. Instead of a first pitch, he had to send out a last message.
“I know it hurts and you have all kinds of emotions running through your head at this time,” Callahan told the upperclassmen. “I encourage you to keep the bigger picture in mind. While baseball and sports in general are very important to all of us, there are more important things playing out in our community, state, nation, and world at this time.
“I have to admit that I never saw anything like this coming, and two months ago would have said ‘There is no way the NCAA tournament will be cancelled or that pro sports would shut down – you are crazy.’”
That’s how crazy the situation is. From unfathomable to stark, harsh reality.
“It’s pretty hard, but there’s nothing we can do about it,” senior tennis player Presley Clark said. “We don’t have a choice. It’s very disappointing. We were really looking forward to it. We had great experiences, a great coach, and we met a lot of people along the way.”
Clark was one of six seniors on the tennis squad for coach Joni Stigall.
“They would have been a really good team,” she said. “We had a lot of high hopes.”
That’s all the athletes and coaches can play now, the dreaded “what if” game. The emotions are difficult to grasp and verbalize.
“We had so many goals, and it’s all getting taken away,” Nikirk said. “We know we can’t do anything about it, but it’s tough. This was why I went to school.”
“This was going to be a special year for this senior class and the BNL baseball program,” Callahan said in his note to the seniors. “You had set the goals of winning 20-plus games, capturing the school’s first HHC championship, and another sectional title. Who knows how far we could have made it in the state tournament.”
BNL softball coach Brad Gilbert, who had to bid a distant farewell to two seniors, lamented the sweat equity poured into the preparation: travel ball in the summer, six weeks in the fall, three nights a week from December to March.
“I get that they have to make decisions, but it’s tough knowing how much work we put in,” Gilbert said. “Right now, it’s tough to think about the seniors and them not getting to play.
“Each kid has their own story, what sports means to them. It’s just sad. We held out hope that things would get better. But each day we woke up, things got worse.”
That’s a familiar refrain in every sport. Mike Wright had three seniors on the BNL golf team, including his own son. Jim Lewis and Brett Deckard had several upperclassmen on their track squads. Those uniforms will stay clean.
“We won’t get a chance to put that uniform on ever again, play another game,” Nikirk said. “I’ll miss being at third base, on the BNL field, with the fans right beside me, jogging back to dugout.
“You could feel it coming, school being cancelled. It’s still shocking, not being able to play your senior season. We’re always going to look back. It’s tough.”
Callahan encouraged the seniors to dwell on the positive memories rather than pout about the negative moments of today.
“Reflect back on all the great times you had over the years,” he said. “Share those stories or pictures with others. Tell your mom and dad thanks for all they have done.”