One of the cruelest twists, Abby Connolly says, is that this has been the perfect spring for high school sports.
Because March in Montana frequently comes with freezing temperatures, spring snowstorms and unplayable surfaces, the start of the sports season for softball, track and tennis athletes is always a challenge. This year, of course, is its own kind of challenge, but coaches and student-athletes throughout the Flathead Valley can’t help but wonder what might have been as they sit at their homes, under order of the governor, and watch the grass lay undisturbed under warm-enough weather and mostly sunny skies.
The Montana High School Association has delayed the start of the spring sports season until at least April 13 because of the coronavirus outbreak and the likelihood is that the last games of the school year have already been played. Three major sports leagues’ seasons are indefinitely on hold, spring sports in the NCAA and NAIA are already canceled, and the resumption of prep games in Montana is only possible if and when the governor revokes a stay-at-home order and reopens schools, which are closed at least through April 10.
Rather than criticize the MHSA for not rendering a final decision, however, some coaches appreciate the faint possibility that the 2020 season will resume. Connolly, the Glacier softball coach, recognizances the unprecedented reality her student-athletes, particularly her seniors, are facing.
“I am really thankful the MHSA is saying they’ll reevaluate in two- or three-week periods because it gives them hope,” she said. “But I know those seniors, they’re pretty bummed. (They could lose) softball, prom, maybe graduation.”
The pain for Connolly’s group stings even more acutely because of how talented a team they would have this year. Glacier went 17-5 and won the Western AA conference title in 2019, and most of that roster was to return intact this spring.
“It’s been pretty difficult,” Connolly said. “Competitively, I know we were probably picked to be one of the top teams in the state … We have seven seniors that had all been in our starting lineup last year and we have girls that have put in hundreds of hours in the offseason.”
Spring sports practices were allowed to begin on March 9 before the MHSA stepped in one week later and paused the season. That communiqué on March 16 is the last message the association delivered, and while those like Bigfork High School Activities Director Matt Porrovecchio would love more long-term clarity, there is an understanding that the state association is mostly falling in line behind higher powers.
“I would reckon that this all goes uphill and they’re wanting to see what the state does, at a larger level,” he said. “My guess would be they’re going to wait and see what happens so they don’t make a decision and then have to go back on it.”
In the meantime, coaches and players are doing what they can to stay sharp in the event that the season does resume. No organized team activities are permitted, and even unorganized activities don’t fall within social distancing guidelines, so Connolly has offered her players some guidance on home workouts and Porrovecchio said he’s advised his coaches to do the same, with a word of caution.
“We really don’t want kids (to say), ‘oh we can get together and do this at the track’ or ‘hey, let’s go play tennis, the coach gave us a workout’ because I don’t want that to be the case,” he said.
For now, coaches, players, parents, fans, administrators and everyone else involved in sports are stuck in limbo. State champions in softball, tennis, and track and field were to be crowned mid-to-late May, and until that date comes or the MHSA makes a final decision, competition could be just around the corner.
“I always want to get out there and play and I think the girls would, too,” Connolly said. “Even if it was just a tournament (at the end of the season) to have that closure. That’s what’s hard for some of them, not having that kind of softball closure.”