The announcement hit the entire Toppenish High School athletics department like a ton of bricks.
As many Washington residents feared, Gov. Jay Inslee declared on April 6 that all K-12 schools in the state would be closed through the end of the academic year due to concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak. Just like that, the entire spring sports season was wiped out.
“No one could believe it,” Wildcats soccer coach Uriel Gonzalez said. “Everyone was just in shock when we were told to shut it down.”
Gonzalez and the other Top-Hi coaches had already held two weeks of practice before the initial shutdown order was given in mid-March. The soccer team had played in a jamboree and was preparing for its first game when the official word came down.
“We were hoping we would be able to take a couple weeks off and then start back up in late April,” Gonzalez said, “but now we’re back to the offseason and thinking about next year.”
The Wildcats were coming off a third-place finish at the Class 2A state tournament and were returning seven starters from that roster, including first-team all-league midfielder Juan Diego Mendoza. Fellow sophomores Hector Godinez, Yahir Quintero and Alexander Magana also were expected to make a difference, along with juniors Isai Rodriguez, Luciano Martinez and Jose Botello.
If the statewide stay-at-home orders are lifted soon, the Wildcats may have a chance to compete in some tournaments in Yakima and Richland this summer. Unfortunately, nothing is certain at this point.
“It’s pretty hard because we were all really excited to get the season going,” Gonzalez said. “Now, we’re just hoping for the best this summer.”
Like the soccer team, the Toppenish High track and field program was also gearing up for an exciting spring. A record-high turnout of 119 athletes had head coach Jason Smith believing this could be a banner season for the ‘Cats. Now, he’s just trying to keep his athletes engaged so they will return next year.
“It’s been very difficult,” Smith said. “When you do something for a long time and it gets taken away from you, it’s painful. But this is also hard on the kids. It’s a grieving process for them, too, and the coaches have to be mindful of that. We need to be there to support them when they need us, and that’s what we have been doing.”
Smith has been in regular contact with two Wildcat seniors, Buddy Blackburn (hurdles) and Daniel Sanchez (discus, javelin, shot put), who came into the season with a good chance of qualifying for state. Sanchez reached the Class 2A meet last year, and both athletes are hoping to compete at the collegiate level. But even though their senior seasons have been lost, they’re not slowing down.
“Those two boys are all track and field, and they are continuing to work really hard on their own,” Smith said. “Buddy took the hurdles home with him and Daniel has been practicing his skills every day. He’s pretty intense about his training — he’s not playing around.”
Smith and his assistant coaches are holding out for some possible competition opportunities this summer — maybe an end-of-the-season barbecue — so they can keep the students interested in track. Of the 119 athletes out this year, only 13 are seniors, which bodes well for next year.
“We should have a lot of kids to work with next year,” Smith said. “It really is a fabulous group of individuals, and we want to do everything we can to ensure they come back.”
Smith, who serves as a senior class advisor at the high school, added that the school is still planning to host a graduation ceremony June 6. If that date gets pushed back due to an extended stay-at-home order, administrators may seek to move the event to August.
“We’re holding out hope that things will come together,” athletic director Brett Stauffer said. “But August would be the drop-dead date because a lot of kids will be heading off to college after that. We’re just keeping our fingers crossed.”
Stauffer said the past six weeks have been very hard on him and his coaches, but also for the students and their families. Spring is a time for baseball, softball, soccer, tennis, golf and track. Seeing all of the fields empty and all of the kids stuck at home has been tough on everyone in the community.
“I just feel really off balance because this isn’t what we normally do in the spring,” Stauffer said. “We have a routine, and now, everything is up in the air. None of us like it, but most of us have come to terms with it.”
As a way of keeping Top-Hi students top-of-mind, Stauffer and his fellow administrators have been sending out Facebook posts every week to celebrate the senior class. The school also has been participating in the nationwide stadium lights initiative.
On Friday nights, schools turn on their stadium lights at 8:20 p.m. (20:20 military time) for 20 minutes so the community can gather together in their cars and honk for the Class of 2020. It’s hard to undo the disappointment these young adults are feeling right now, but every little bit of support helps.
“We’re just trying to create some positivity,” Stauffer said.