Players, coaches hoping for winter sports season

By Bill Althaus

As high school teams started winter sports practices this week, perhaps no group can appreciate the pall of uncertainty that hangs overhead as much as Mark Spigarelli’s Blue Springs girls basketball team.

Student-athletes could be practicing or playing one day and without notice could be canceled the next day, or next week, or even the rest of the season.

Blue Springs High School assistant varsity basketball coach Roger Lower and his Wildcat players, from left, Ja'Cole Johnson, Camryn Collins and Jada Williams, are masked up and ready for practice. The Wildcats were headed to the Class 5 final four earlier this when COVID-19 shut down high school, college and professional sports.

In a heartbreaking 24-hour period last March, Spigarelli’s team went from the penthouse of emotion in prep sports to the basement.

The upstart Wildcats continued a postseason run with a 51-41 Class 5 state quarterfinal win over undefeated Liberty, to punch their ticket to the final four. But 24 hours after a Sunday practice session, the Missouri State High School Activities Association announced the state tournaments were canceled – victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to tell a team was when I had to tell our girls that the final four had been canceled,” Spigarelli said earlier this week, before a practice that featured social distancing and masks.

“I think about that meeting with our girls every day. I think about our seniors, and what they missed out on, and it still hurts.”

The Examiner’s co-Player of the Year, Jada Williams, echoed her coach’s sentiments.

“My girls worked so hard last year, and we earned the trip to the final four and then it was taken away,” Williams said. “That’s why this year is so important to all of us. We have to take care of business on the court, but more importantly, we have to take care of business away from the school.”

“We don’t want to wear these masks, but we do. We want to get together with our friends, but we don’t because we’re being careful to get COVID or help spread it.”

“And I’ll be honest with you – I wonder every day if we’re going to have a season. One mistake, one outbreak and it could all end before it even begins, and that scares me to death.”

Welcome to the student-athlete age of COVID-19 in which one area high school football coach, Grain Valley defensive coordinator Pete Carpino, told his players, “Play every game like it’s your last, like it’s a championship game, because it could be the last game you play.”

The Eagles bought into that philosophy and earned a No. 1 seed in district play and took an 8-1 record into Friday’s district contest.

To further illustrate the point, Grain Valley advanced after its scheduled playoff opponent last week, William Chrisman, had to forfeit due to positive COVID-19 cases. Also in the metro area, Rockhurst, Lee’s Summit North and Oak Park also had to forfeit postseason football games in previous weeks, and just this week unbeaten and top-ranked Odessa did the same.

Thursday, Grain Valley Superintendent Marc Snow sent a letter about the possibility of 100 percent virtual learning in the school district.

“Our Eastern Jackson County region is experiencing a significant increase in new positive cases of COVID-19, leading to a sharp increase in the number of staff and students in our schools and departments who must quarantine or isolate,” he wrote. “Through weekly meetings with regional health, government, and school district officials, I stay up to date on what is occurring in other school districts and communities in our area. We are not alone in dealing with the challenges associated with increased positivity rates in our area.”

“As we speak, that is not affecting any of our winter sports programs,” Grain Valley activities director Brandon Hart said, “but I’m talking about right now. We all saw how things changed minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day this past spring and summer, so who knows? I wish I had the answers, but I don’t.”

Right now, no one has an answer.

The Jackson County Health Department cites the ongoing heightened level of COVID-19 community transmission and says it “strongly recommends” that school districts not conduct indoor sports where social distancing or wearing masks might not be possible.

However, the health department said school districts will come to their own conclusions, and strongly recommends wearing masks, not allowing spectators or limiting the number of spectators to immediate family members of participants, taking participants’ temperature and monitoring all players for symptoms throughout the week.

“We want to put student-athletes, coaches and fans in the safest surrounding possible,” Fort Osage Superintendent Jason Snodgrass said. “We believe it is important for students to be involved in school activities, like winter sports programs, but we also believe they need to be in a safe environment.”

“And that can include limiting the number of fans, which I know can be disappointing. But these are different times, and we are making the decisions that we think are best for everyone involved.”

Independence Superintendent Dale Herl agrees that caution and prevention are as important as participating and watching.

“When the winter seasons roll around, we will have strict guidelines in place as to how many spectators will be allowed to watch the game, and if the student-athletes must be socially distanced and wear masks.”

“We certainly want to get a contact sport like wrestling in this winter, and I believe they are going to limit the number of teams that can attend a tournament and practice social distancing with small groups of wrestlers at practices and meets.”

Fort Osage wrestling coach Derick Barker, who works with undefeated sophomore Haley Ward, said those practices are already in place.

“We have our wrestlers in no more than groups of three at practice, and if they are not on the mat wrestling, they are wearing a mask and social distancing,” Barker said. “No one has all the answers, but I’m impressed at how all administrations are making sure we give our student-athletes every opportunity to compete this winter.”

Ward, one of the premier wrestlers in the nation who was 36-0 last year to become the first female state champion in Fort Osage history, said she is entering this season with some concerns.

“First, I’m wondering if we are going to be able to wrestle,” Ward said. “We’re doing so many things at practice to keep ourselves safe – social distancing, staying in small groups to work out, wearing masks – and I’m just hoping it works because I can’t imagine what it would be like without high school wrestling.”

She paused for a moment, and added, “Then I think about what might happen if I get COVID. I’m young and healthy, so I am not worried about getting real sick or going to the hospital, but what if I gave it to my parents or my grandparents? I worry about stuff like that.”

Becky Slaughter, whose daughter Grace Slaughter of Grain Valley joined Blue Springs’ Williams as The Examiner’s Co-Girls Basketball Player of the Year last season, has a unique point of view as a parent and a fan.

“I know our schools are going to do everything possible to keep our kids safe,” Slaughter said. “There is so much uncertainty, I can see it in Grace and some of the other kids. 

“I keep telling her, and I know her coaches are telling her the same thing: ‘Enjoy every minute and take every practice – and hopefully game – and play like it’s your last, because it might be your last game.’”

And when I say that, Grace will look at me and say, “But if a game is canceled or postponed, they’re going to make it up, aren’t they?”

She hopes to get a different answer than the one MSHSAA handed down to Spigarelli’s Wildcats and all other spring sport participants earlier this year.

“I don’t like this new normal,” Truman boys basketball coach Rod Briggs said. “I like normal, the way it used to be, and I sure hope we get back to that one day, one day very soon.”