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For prep athletes, a sudden void — and no easy answers

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It’s almost like having the rug pulled out from under your feet. Or having the finish line disappear just as it comes into sight. Some have called it an empty feeling.

For so many high school teams and athletes in Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties who were having banner sports seasons, the coronavirus cancellations are a huge letdown, causing a sense of vacancy and disappointment at a time they should be reveling in their achievements.

Last week, the California Interscholastic Federation held off on any announcement canceling state playoffs for spring sports until April 3. Still, high school sports remain in a tenuous holding pattern, with state and county health orders for all residents to stay at home and not even go to school or work, let alone play games.

Each day that passes with no end in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic is another day erased from the spring sports calendar — and, for most seniors, their final year of competitive sports.

Cloverdale’s Tehya Bird is a three-sport athlete down to two sports.

The senior played on her volleyball team, which advanced to the North Coast Section quarterfinals, and led her basketball team to the North Coast Section Division 5 championship before turning her attention to her main sport: softball.

And then the cancellations began. No one knows if softball, baseball and the other spring sports will resume.

“I’m pretty sad, especially because it’s my senior year and it doesn’t just mean my season is canceled — it’s graduation, it’s all the things we’re supposed to be doing before school is done,” she said.

Bird long ago committed to playing softball at the University of Oregon, so she doesn’t have to prove herself in her final year. But still, it feels strange for her not to be on the diamond in March.

“I’m not playing any games right now. So I have to find other things to do, play catch or hit off a tee,” she said. “I was starting to go to the gym, but those are closed now, too. I’ve never not played a sport, never not had a practice to go to, so it’s weird to sit around and do nothing.”

Piner’s Mason Cole-Schweizer played on his school’s record-setting football team and the basketball team that went to the NCS playoffs and is now sitting at home, trying to figure out how to stay fit and active.

“For me, it’s never the end of the year because we’re always doing something, like lifting. But now we can’t even do that because the gym is closed,” the junior said. “I’m just staying at home. It doesn’t feel as good. I’m normally doing something every day, something athletic. I’ve been running and doing as much as I can, doing pushups.”

That’s a far cry from December, after the Prospectors football team went on an improbable 11-2 run and set a number of individual and team records while lifting their program — and, indeed, the whole school — with an optimism Piner hadn’t seen in ages.

Piner Athletic Director Marc Anderson, who also coaches the girls basketball team, said the pause in sports is uncharted territory.

“We don’t really know how to feel because we’ve never been in this situation before,” he said. “It’s something being stripped away from us that we can’t control.

“In a sense, this is even bigger than the fires, because at least we had firefighters to try to control that. When it comes to the COVID-19 virus, we can’t control anything.”

Cardinal Newman’s football team brought home a CIF Division 3-AA state title — its first ever — and with it seemed to put some distance between the past two seasons that were upended because of fire here and smoke elsewhere.

Rancho Cotate’s football team also went to the state title game, a first in the Rohnert Park school’s history for any team sport. It was also the football team’s first NorCal regional title and the first NCS football championship since 2002.

In winter sports, Montgomery High brought home two NorCal soccer titles, girls and boys, and the Laytonville girls basketball team was all set to play in the NorCal Division VI championship game when schools began calling an end to competitions as concerns of spreading the virus took hold.

The Warriors went 10-0 in the North Central League III and 29-3 overall in another local record-setting performance.

For upperclassmen, it’s been a third year of disruption to their prep sporting careers.

“They’re getting tremendous lessons in resiliency and challenge,” said Graham Rutherford, the dean of students at Cardinal Newman. “It just feels so unfair to have so many of those lessons.”

While the fires were hyperlocal or regional losses, the virus is a pandemic, affecting virtually everyone. That makes the response from student-athletes a little different, he said.

While some lost their homes to fire or had friends who did, they eventually went back to school and picked back up. So far, that may not be an option this spring.

Cloverdale’s Bird said she won’t let these disruptions define her prep career.

“The things that were in between were obstacles we had to get over,” she said. “But I feel like those are the little things. They seemed big at the time, but looking back, I don’t remember the smoke last season, but I do remember the games. This one will be bigger because it canceled the entire season.”

Having such a widespread disruption does set this one apart, Rutherford said.

“This one isn’t a local hit that the others were,” he said. “That’s offering a different perspective, in that sense of how you deal with that. Some respond really well in being positive. For other people, it’s just that sense of loss.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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