This time last year, high school athletes who play spring sports were dealt the devastating blow that their 2020 season would be over before it even started.
As the coronavirus pandemic hit Washington, it cast uncertainty over spring sports and caused many school districts to delay the start of their seasons.
Then, on March 12, 2020, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ordered schools in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties to close for six weeks. The decision meant spring sports teams in Snohomish County, which had already begun practicing, wouldn’t be able to start their season until after April 24.
Some teams and players still held on to hope that they’d be able to return, but those hopes would soon be dashed when school closures were extended for the remainder of the school year on April 6, effectively ending the spring sports season.
“After the second time they tried to push (the season) back a little bit, it was pretty much certain that we weren’t going to play,” said Kevin Faulkner, a catcher on the Marysville Pilchuck baseball team. “That’s really rough because you feel bad for the seniors who didn’t get their senior year. … We had a bunch of seniors on our team, so it was hard to watch them take their last practices without even getting a senior game or a season.”
Those seniors never got get back on the field, but now their younger teammates have returned to action.
On Wednesday — 366 days after last season was officially canceled — many local athletes returned to play as Wesco started its slate of games for the shortened spring sports schedule.
“There’s just a lot of excitement about being back out on the field and playing high school sports,” Jackson softball coach Kyle Peacocke said. “I know that fall sports got things going, but a lot of my kids are just spring athletes, so this is their first opportunity. So it’s just like a lot of smiles and it just feels really, really good.”
It’s been a long wait, and players and their coaches are grateful to be together once again, but there’s no denying that it’s an unusual season.
Faulkner, a senior, said the first day of baseball practice with his Marysville Pilchuck teammates was, “kind of eerie.”
“It was kind of like nobody knew how to act because we had to all be spread out with masks and stuff,” Faulkner said. “It’s kind of really impersonal almost. It was a weird way to come back.”
As the opening games approached, teams could feel the excitement build for their highly anticipated openers.
“There was a bigger hype to this year mainly due to the fact that we were returning to play sports and we were going to be returning to actually playing a full season of soccer,” Arlington senior Gio Acero said. “So there was definitely an adrenaline rush running through our minds for this upcoming season.”
For Acero, Wednesday’s opening match against Marysville Getchell was especially meaningful. He had been slated to take over as the Eagles’ varsity starting goalkeeper in 2020. That opportunity never came to fruition because of the season’s cancellation.
“I’m just fortunate enough to be able to play one last year here at Arlington,” he said.
The spring sports season is just six weeks long and doesn’t feature a postseason, marking the second straight year spring athletes won’t get a chance at district or state tournaments.
Ultimately, the lack of a postseason isn’t issue for many. They’re just happy to be playing.
“There’s gonna be a thought to it,” Acero said of the postseason, “but honestly we have a chip on our shoulder and have something to prove. As long as we get a season to prove it, that’s all we could ever ask for.”
Even a perennial state-tournament contender like the Jackson softball team, which went 683 days without a game after winning their second straight Class 4A state championship in 2019, isn’t fretting over not having postseason opportunities.
“We’re just so happy to be out there and playing,” Jackson senior Kayla Peacocke said. “Kind of this year, we’re using it as a bridge to next season because hopefully there will be playoffs next year. We just gotta keep it rolling.”
The long layoff between seasons does present challenges for athletes and their coaches, though.
Teams haven’t played live games together in nearly two years, and they had less time than normal to prepare for the season.
Practices for spring sports started March 29, leaving teams time for about seven or eight practices before their first games. In a typical year, athletes are required to have 10 practices before competing in games. This year that number is just five because of the shortened time frame.
“There’s kind of a little rust because a lot of guys haven’t been able to practice and stuff,” Faulkner said. “So there’s a lot of guys behind playing wise. So it’s kind of tricky.”
Marysville Pilchuck baseball coach James Day expressed concerns over pitching this season as many players haven’t had the chance to build up the arm strength and durability needed to eat up innings.
“Typically, I’d have three starters and they’d go at least five innings, but I maybe see one guy in my whole rotation going five innings right now,” Day said. “… The guys haven’t thrown in a while. So (there’s) going to be battling some arm soreness and everything. Hopefully other programs have some deep pitching.”
Even in softball, where teams can get by with using just one or two pitchers throughout an entire season, there’s some more attention being paid to workloads.
“I’m just kind of being careful as we move forward each week at a time,” Kyle Peacocke said. “It could be a challenge. We’ll have to see how it plays out. But I’m sure coaches are definitely aware of it and being a little bit more cautious probably.”
Arlington boys soccer coach Kieren Raney said his team used the open coaching window before the season so players could attend conditioning practices twice a week. The time was helpful, but he said it isn’t enough to get players in shape they need to be in for games.
The short time between the first practices and games also gives coaches less time to evaluate their players and figure out where they best fit on the field.
“It makes it real tough when you have three outfielders, six third baseman and five second baseman,” Day said. “Guys think they want to stay in those positions. So evaluations like that, it’s just been tough because guys haven’t been getting the routine ground balls, and if they haven’t been playing any select or anything … they’re a couple years behind.”
And the players are getting less time to build the teamwork needed to execute the finer details in games.
“Coming back together, there’s still kind of a comfort level that you have to work to find,” Kyle Peacocke said, “because they’re not used to being together and communicating and things like that.”
There may be many challenges this season, but teams are ready to embrace those and make the best of their return.
“We’re not guaranteed a tomorrow to play,” Raney said. “We’re guaranteed what we have right now. So I’m encouraging my guys to give 110% at practice because you just don’t know. In these uncertain times, all you can commit to is working hard and enjoying what you have right in front of you.”