Nice weather is an added cruelty of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Trees are blooming fluffy cherry blossoms, sunshine is beaming and a slip of warmth is filtering through the spring air. All signs it’s softball, baseball and track and field season.
But as Serena Cunningham and her mother walk the Washington Park Arboretum trails, the world as the Garfield senior shortstop and other teenage student-athletes like her knew has been put on pause.
To slow the spread of the virus, Gov. Jay Inslee last week announced the closure of the state’s K-12 schools through the remainder of the academic year. The order — which coincides with a “Stay home, Stay safe” mandate through May 4 — forced the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association to cancel all spring state championships.
“My heart definitely dropped when I found out,” Cunningham said.
The decision is a multifaceted hit to senior athletes. Not only does Cunningham not have the opportunity to help Garfield defend its Class 3A softball state championship, chances to get recruited to play college ball are also dwindling.
In addition to lost high-school spring seasons, camps and tournaments for all sports that attracted college coaches with scholarship offers are also being canceled across the U.S. making recruiting another aspect of sports jolted by the pandemic.
“The whole game’s changed,” said Jack Renkens, the founder and president of Recruiting Realities, which for more than two decades has helped families through the process. “You want to see the kid in-person and this shutdown makes it extremely difficult. What used to be a crapshoot is more of a crapshoot.”
Compounding the issue is the NCAA’s decision to allow spring-sport athletes an additional year of eligibility. Programs are permitted to carry more scholarship athletes to account for incoming freshmen, yet that won’t help those who waited to make their college choices.
“Division III and NAIA coaches are going to get higher-quality athletes now,” Renkens said. “Because these high-end kids that are scholarship players, they’re not going to have any place to go. Now they’re going to look at some of these other schools because they can get funded.”
For Cunningham, that meant Seattle U canceled her planned visit because its roster will likely be full. Central Washington is still evaluating whether she can walk-on and compete for a scholarship later, but playing time could be scarce if seniors return.
Brian Martinez, a Tahoma senior who placed second in the 800 meter race at the Class 4A state meet last year, is concerned whether any financing will still be available for him this year. He’s considering Washington State, Washington, Grand Canyon and Liberty.
“It’s confusing,” Martinez said. “For a while schools couldn’t recruit because of the coronavirus and some athletes are losing scholarship money because people are staying for the next year. But I’m handling it pretty well. I just planned for my senior season to be my biggest season to end high school. I had some big goals.”
Uploading clips of athletes in action to YouTube or Hudl for scouts to view is key. Or emailing them to coaches who have more time because the NCAA extended its dead period to June 1, eliminating all travel and campus visits.
Some coaches have amped up their virtual recruiting by utilizing Zoom video conferencing to talk to prospects and having drones fly around campuses so athletes can see the facilities and surroundings. Still, many will make decisions having not physically seen a campus or even meeting their teammates and coaches in-person.
The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), basketball tournaments run by Nike, Adidas and Under Armour and most 7-on-7 football camps are already canceled through April. But July is the most popular month for recruiting.
“I worry about conditioning. I worry about overuse — trying to get back too fast,” said Mike Neighbors, the former Washington head women’s basketball coach who is now at Arkansas. “I don’t want to push it. And we’re learning through this inadvertently that you can send us a video and we can watch it. We coaches may have to use our experience and our eyes a little bit more rather than just saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be live and in-person.’ That might be naive on our part.”
Athletes haven’t stopped training. Tracy Ford was forced to shutter his namesake gym in Bellevue but is still offering personal training tips and techniques virtually. He preaches to his high-school football athletes that it’s the work outside of practice and his facility that separates talent.
Now, unfortunately, that’s literal.
“This has given us more time to get on the horn to help some of these kids from a recruiting standpoint,” said Ford, who would be preparing multiple 7-on-7 teams to travel for tournaments and unofficial college visits. “But through this, you’re really going to see who’s dedicated and conducting themselves like a pro.”
Motivation can be hard to find for seniors whose seasons are lost and futures are uncertain.
Cunningham keep her skills sharp by hitting balls and playing catch with her younger sister. Walks through the Arboretum with her family are good distractions.
“I was excited to have coaches come to my games and watch me and be recruited a little bit,” Cunningham said. “I’m pretty sad about it. I wanted to end on a good note and now I can’t.”