'It's heartbreaking for our athletes': Prep sports community reacts to schools closing

Gov. J.B. Pritzker's announcement Friday that all schools will be closed for the remainder of the academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic was met with sadness and frustration, but also understanding by the high school sports community.

“It's not a surprise but it's very disappointing,” said Naperville North athletic director Bob Quinn. “It's heartbreaking for our athletes, our coaches and our families. We're relying on medical professionals and for that reason we'll follow the guidelines.”

The closing of schools until at least August will likely also mean the end of the 2019-20 high school sports season, although the Illinois High School Association did not make that immediate determination Friday.

“The IHSA board of directors is scheduled to meet via video conference on Tuesday,” IHSA executive director Craig Anderson said in a statement Friday after the governor's announcement. “At that meeting, the board will make a final determination on the IHSA's spring sport state tournaments based on the governor's announcement that Illinois high schools will not return to in-person learning this school year.

“As we previously indicated, the cessation of in-person learning will make it difficult for the IHSA to conduct spring state tournaments this year. More information will be provided following Tuesday's board meeting.”

Coaches and athletic directors from across the suburbs had similar reactions of disappointment and understanding.

“The announcement doesn't come as surprise,” said Barrington athletic director Mike Obsuszt. “We're very, very disappointed we are not going to be able to have our athletes participating this spring. Obviously, though, the health of our students in the No. 1 priority at this point as well as the health of everyone else.”

This is Mike Schmidt's 25th year coaching the Burlington Central boys track and field team. The Rockets had nine seniors on a team Schmidt said had the potential to win a state trophy.

“They don't get to fulfill everything they have worked so hard for,” Schmidt said. “That's the most frustrating thing. The hard work and dedication to their sport is not going to be fulfilled for this year anyway. For some it's the end of their careers, some will go on to college. For those who this is it it's a sad day.”

Steve May, Wheeling's assistant principal/student activities said: “It's really disappointing that a lot of these kids who only play one sport. They've geared up for their spring season and the seniors are losing out on their final opportunities. It's sad for them.

“I just had a meeting with all my spring coaches and they're devastated because they love what they do, They love interacting with the student/athletes. They love the competition. I'm just sad for everyone — parents, teachers coaches, everyone.”

Grayslake Central baseball coach Troy Whalen was trying Friday to determine how to speak to his players.

“Illinois was one of the last states holding on and everyone had a small glimmer of hope for spring sports,” Whalen said. “But most people saw this coming. It's just like anything else though. Once you hear that final message, it's tough, especially for the seniors.

“I have a Zoom call with my seniors later today, just the seniors, and it's a call that I never in my wildest imagination thought I would ever be on. I've been thinking about what I'm going to say and I'm sure it will get emotional. I know it will for me. The first thing I'm going to tell them is that as a coach, I feel robbed of getting to spend time this season with some really great seniors. You're never going to get that time back and that's tough.”

Burlington's Schmidt also has the perspective as a parent. His son Zac is a sophomore on the track team.

“Equally frustrating but from a different angle of seeing the progress and the ability to achieve greater things and see him enjoy time with his teammates,” Schmidt said. “And for us as parents to go watch him. There's a finite amount of time you get to see your kid play sports in high school and this just takes away a little bit more of that.”

Rob Harvey, Wheaton Warrenville South girls track and field coach who is also the father of a South Elgin boys track and field athlete, said it's not about winning and losing.

“The winning and losing, those are secondary,” Harvey said. “Yeah, we have some kids on our team that would have possibly run for state championships or all-state medals and conference championships and all those type of things. But those are secondary to the moments that we as coaches and teachers try to create for kids. Those moments, you can't get those back, and it breaks my heart.

“From a personal standpoint, I miss my kids. I miss my teaching. I miss the kids I see in second period and third and fifth and all the way through the day. What I don't think kids understand is that they are a really, really big part of our life, the kids we teach and really as high school coaches, the kids that we coach. Many of them go on and become lifelong friends. They're huge, huge, parts of our lives. And we don't know when we'll see them again.”

St. Charles East's softball team was hoping to make a return trip to the state tournament. The Saints lost 1-0 to Huntley in last year's Class 4A state title game.

While disappointed not to have that opportunity, that's not what Saints coach Jarod Gutesha said he's going to miss the most.

“It's not the end, it's the day-to-day, the practices, the day-to-day stuff is toughest,” Gutesha said. “I'd love 3 to 5 when we are dialed into softball. Hitting ground balls, getting better. Having the kids make those bonds. That's the stuff I miss the most as a coach is the day-to-day.”

Stevenson's girls water polo team is the three-time defending state champion and had run its current winning streak to 70.

“It's only logical right now,” said Patriots' coach Jeff Wimer of Friday's decision. “First and foremost, and I've said this to kids for 30-something years, health is more important than anything. Without health, you have nothing. And right now it's health with your family and health with everyone. Every time I see and talk to anyone, I finish by saying, 'Stay healthy.' ”

Larkin athletic director Ethan Karolczak placed an emphasis on education.

“It wasn't necessarily unexpected but it's still disappointing and it's kind of surreal,” he said. “My text message alert is blowing up. I've gotten 22 text messages from athletic directors in the last five minutes. It's kind of surreal for us, too. Now our job is doing everything we can to make sure that our student-athletes are still learning. He (Gov. Pritzker) didn't say learning was closed.

“It's unfortunate, but I believe that if the medical health experts and the state officials think it's in the best interests of keeping everybody alive and keeping everybody safe, it's a sacrifice we're all going to have to make. That's our priority.”

Naperville North girls soccer coach Steve Goletz also said health and safety have to come first.

“I think as the date kept getting pushed back the hope continued to get smaller and smaller and then once the word came out today it was one of those things where it feels like, all right, what can we really do? But the health and safety of everybody is paramount in this situation,” Goletz said. “I know the kids and families understand that, but it doesn't make it any easier for especially senior athletes to swallow.

“As you watch these press conferences that happen, you continue to see some signs that just point you towards, what is normal going to be again and what is normal going to look like? For our kids it's hard to wrap your head around that because it's hard for us as adults to wrap your head around it. There's only so much you can say to kids to take the sting out of the losses that they're incurring over the last month here.”

WW South AD Mike Healy looked to the future.

“You kind of knew this was expected but when the finality actually happens, yeah, it's sad,” he said. “You just feel awful for the athletes, especially the seniors. The next thing is we hope we can get together again in the summer.”

• Daily Herald sports writers Orrin Schwarz, John Lemon, Joe Aguilar, Kevin Schmit, Dave Oberhelman, John Leusch and Patricia Babcock McGraw contributed to this story.

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'Hard to accept' for senior prep athletes who see careers end due to pandemic

  Prospect's Erik Snell takes the lead in the Class 3A 3,200-meter relay at the IHSA boys state track preliminary events in Charleston last spring. High school sports will likely not return in Illinois this spring after Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Friday the state's schools will remain closed for the remainder of the academic year. John Starks/
  Barrington's Samantha Murphy and Katherine Stagnito and Huntley's Grace Kutz all react to a call during a softball sectional game last spring. High school sports will likely not return in Illinois this spring after Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Friday the state's schools will remain closed for the remainder of the academic year. John Starks/
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