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A decision, unprecedented and sobering in nature, has been reached.

On Monday morning, Gov. Phil Murphy made the announcement that students, parents and education professionals have been reluctantly bracing for: New Jersey schools will be closed for in-person instruction for the rest of the academic year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With that, there will be no high school sports in the Garden State. The 2020 spring season of high school sports is officially canceled.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association confirmed the season's cancelation, as well.

"Following today's announcement by Governor Murphy, the NJSIAA has officially canceled New Jersey's 2020 high school spring sports season," the organization said in a statement. "The decision was not made lightly and we are disappointed for the thousands of New Jersey student-athletes who will be unable to compete this spring. While we remained hopeful to the end and left open every possibility, competition is not feasible given the circumstances."

"The last few weeks have been heartbreaking on many levels, from the tragic loss of life, to thousands battling the virus, to millions who have suffered emotional and economic loss. It's been a harrowing time for everyone and we know our student-athletes are extremely disappointed. That said, these unfortunate circumstances may have put an intriguing challenge in the path of our young people. As New Jersey's own Vince Lombardi said, 'It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get up'. We're confident all our kids will ger back up and stand tall."

"The NJSIAA will continue developing plans for the potential restarting of scholastic sports during the fall season. Additional information related both to the summer recess and fall will be shared at a later date."

Cases of COVID-19 have continued to rise in New Jersey with 128,269 cases and 7,916 virus-related deaths through May 2, according to New Jersey officials. Social-distancing measures put in place by Murphy have everything closed except essential businesses. Large gatherings have been banned and that includes in-person school classes and athletic events. When will it be safe to gather in larger groups publicly without the potential of transmitting the deadly virus? Nobody knows that answer, but in the case of returning to school, it won't be within the next few months.

"We're working with the principle that public health creates economic health, or in this case, educational health," Murphy said. "If the standards are high to reopen our workplaces they are even higher when it comes to schools filled with our children."

Student-athletes for spring sports were roughly two weeks into preseason practices when the order was issued to stop all activities. They held out hope that some semblance of the season could be salvaged, especially seniors set to participate in their final season. But as the weeks went on with no significant change in sight, the unthinkable became the inevitable. Now, just like that, it’s all over before it even began.

“I am heartbroken for the student-athletes, coaches, student managers, officials, parents and all involved in the spring season,” said Rich Carroll, the President of the Shore Conference of Schools and the athletic director for the Middletown School District. “Everyone prepares year-round for their time and to have it taken away by this worldwide tragedy is unthinkable. As coaches and administrators, we often speak about the life lessons sports teach us and perhaps no other season has taught us more on how to handle what life throws at us. I can only hope and pray that this is the greatest adversity and challenge our student-athletes encountered during their lifetime.”

Ken Frank has seen everything high school sports has to offer during his legendary 42-year career as Toms River South’s baseball coach. There have been incredible wins and gut-wrenching defeats, but the finality of Thursday’s decision was a different kind of loss.

“I just feel bad for the kids. They were working really hard in practice and I know they put in a lot of work in the offseason to be ready to play on opening day,” Frank said. “A lot of them were going to have an opportunity to play a lot for the first time after waiting a couple years. They put in the work, but who could have ever seen this coming? I think I have seen just about everything but I have never seen anything like this.”

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association had been brainstorming potential return-to-play plans in the event schools were reopened. On Friday, April 10, the NJSIAA announced it would not extend the season into the summer – as some had expressed interest in and even petitioned for – and set June 30 as the last possible day for a spring season. It also set Memorial Day as the deadline for the start of the season in order to conduct state sectional tournaments. If the season were to begin after May 25 there would be no state tournament but conferences and leagues could hold tournaments with all play ending on or before June 30.

The plans were all for naught, however. Now, the 2020 spring season will be forever remembered as the season that never was. The decision to close schools for the rest of the year was made with public health as the first priority and coaches and athletes have expressed their complete understanding that it was inevitable. But that doesn’t make it much easier to come to terms with.

"It’s a tough situation and the worst thing is it’s nobody’s fault,” said 11th-year Freehold Township baseball coach Todd Smith. “When you lose at the end of a season or maybe you get beat out for playing time, there is always something you could have done. With this, you have seniors who may never get to play again and it’s because of something that’s entirely out of their control."

There will plenty of what-ifs going through the heads of players, parents and coaches. Team and individual milestones will not be reached. Championships will not be won. Athletic potential will not be realized for some seniors who marked 2020 as their breakout year. Above all, it’s time that can never be replaced.

“I guess the biggest void from my perspective is the time lost with the seniors,” said Christian Brothers Academy lacrosse coach Dave Santos, who was set to begin his 22nd season. “As the years have progressed, I've come to realize that when I look back on past seasons, my fondest memories aren't centered on games won or milestones achieved. Instead, my most cherished moments are centered around the relationships and bonds formed with the boys, and the satisfaction of watching them grow and mature into young men. This lacrosse class of 2020 at CBA is one of the most impressive I've ever coached. I can see that clearly, despite losing this season, in the way they've carried themselves throughout their careers, and in the way they led the boys during the offseason. They've left quite an impression on me regardless of the current situation, and this makes the lost season a bit harder to swallow because I know we would have enjoyed a terrific and memorable senior season. That is what I'll miss the most.”

You only get one senior year. There’s something different about being a 12th-grader, especially as an athlete. There is a finality to it all that increases the sense of urgency. For the first time, there is no next year. Now there isn’t even this year. There are athletes who will continue their careers at the collegiate level but many more who were going to be putting on a uniform for the final time this spring.

“This year, we have the most seniors we have ever had,” said Jackson Memorial baseball coach Frank Malta, who is in his 16th season. “Those are the guys you feel for because this was supposed to be their last ride. Not all of them were going to be stars but they all work for what they get: whether it’s three or four at-bats, an inning or two on the mound, a couple plays in the field. You gotta think about those program guys. You have those kinds of guys over the years and those are the kids you want to be around. They come to practice, work their butts off and give you everything they’ve got for the good of the team.”

“You’re just wondering what their mindset is going to be like,” said Christian Brothers Academy baseball coach Marty Kenny Jr., who was preparing to begin his first year as the Colts’ head coach and taking over for his father, Marty Sr., who won 832 games over a 46-year career.

“With the senior class, you kind of have to keep them involved and keep them engaged. We want them to know they are part of the program and always will be, even the guys who didn’t play a varsity game. I always think, as devastating as this is, it makes you appreciate the opportunity to play the game. For the guys who get to play again, I think it offers a new perspective on things.”

While the Class of 2020 is at the forefront because it was their careers, not just this season, that ended so abruptly, the effects on the Class of 2021 could be even greater. The junior season and the summer that follows is crucial for recruiting, especially in lacrosse.

“The juniors are the ones who are going to get the short end because they miss out on their junior season and summer club lacrosse,” said Brick Memorial boys lacrosse head coach Brent Middlemiss. “Most kids make a dramatic jump from their sophomore to junior year. In the six or seven practices we had, I could see the transformation my juniors had made.”

The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility for all spring-sport student-athletes because of the canceled collegiate season. It also said it will allow schools to expand rosters beyond current scholarship limits to account for incoming recruits and seniors who were expected to leave. College and university athletic departments aren’t generated their normal level of revenue, however, and that could impact the decision to grant additional scholarships.

“Is that coach going to use that scholarship on a grad transfer instead of an incoming freshman?',” Middlemiss said. “In some lacrosse circles, it’s a big concern. Some schools have lost revenue and theoretically can cut roster size or cancel the program. And schools with a limited travel and recruiting budget, can they go out and recruit?”

At least there will be time to get those details sorted. For the Class of 2020, their time has come to an end in a manner that was unthinkable just a few months ago.

“For our seniors, it’s terrible because this could have been one of our best seasons in a long time,” Middlemiss said. “Our senior class has really come together. They worked hard over the offseason to be successful and for that to end like this is a hard thing to swallow.”


Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.



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