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Benefield: Prep track and field coaches fear season will be lost

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Maria Carrillo High track and field coach Greg Fogg ran his team through a workout Thursday, doing some last-minute prep for the North Coast Track Extravaganza on Saturday at Montgomery High. He only had a smattering of athletes left on the track when he got word that Saturday’s meet was canceled and, with it, perhaps the rest of the prep track and field season.

The cancellations and postponements in the face of the spreading coronavirus pandemic are no longer addressing events happening this weekend, or this month, but now this season. The spring prep sports season is very much in doubt.

“We are on hold indefinitely,” Fogg said. “I’m really trying to prepare them for everything to be canceled.”

Practices and workouts have been nixed until all 10 CIF commissioners meet on Tuesday to decide how, or if, the spring sport season for tens of thousands of California high school athletes can go on. Schools and districts have authority over regular-season contests, but section and state officials oversee the postseason. And as the section and state goes, so, likely, will area officials go. Translation: The two-day CIF meeting Tuesday and Wednesday will very likely decide the fate of spring sports.

Coaches are asked to prepare their athletes for a lot of things — workouts, tough games, painful losses. But to prepare for an abrupt end to the season, and perhaps a career, is a different assignment entirely.

And no one is advocating any “the show must go on” bravado, but this is a painful purgatory nonetheless.

“Yesterday was one of the hardest days of my coaching career,” Montgomery track and field co-coach Melody Karpinski said. “It’s just so unfair for these kids.”

Because for area athletes it hasn’t just been about the coronavirus. It’s been about the Tubbs fire, the Camp fire, the Kincade fire, the PG&E power shutoffs …

“It’s been three and a half years of a roller coaster of events,” said Montgomery High’s athletic director, Dean Haskins.

I guess the silver lining is that coaches have had practice breaking bad news, going to Plan B and building contingency plans. Karpinski and co-coach Bryan Bradley know the drill.

“We wanted to tell them in person,” Karpinski said.

So they gathered their athletes together after practice and told them first that their home meet Saturday was canceled and second that the season is on ice. They will hold no workouts or practices until after the CIF commissioners meet Tuesday.

“We want to look in their eyes and say, ‘We are here for you,’ ” Karpinski said.

The fact that spring break is next week and athletes won’t be in school might soften the blow for some, or perhaps increase the sense of isolation for others.

Fogg was having the same pseudo team meeting on Friday. When he told athletes that the season might be canceled, there wasn’t much else to say. There was some hope of perhaps merely a shortened season or some postponements, but after every major professional sports league has put a stop to events, it seemed better to prepare for the worst.

“They just turned and walked away,” Fogg said. “They were really bummed. I think they see the writing on the wall.”

The ramifications are more than purely emotional. Tournaments and meets are major fundraisers for teams. Cancel the Extravaganza? That’s in the ballpark of $5,000 the track team won’t see, Karpinski said. If the Viking Track Classic in April doesn’t happen, that’s an even bigger hit — about $15,000 for a program that buys its own hurdles, pole vault mats and other pieces of equipment.

On an individual level, wiping out an entire season can hurt — sometimes in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. Seniors in line for a scholarship in college can see their financial aid get a bump if they hit particular marks during the season. Or this season’s results could have meant nabbing a scholarship or a spot at a school for an athlete who has a breakout year.

But that holds true for just a select few. For most, it’s just a chance to compete. One of the beauties of track and field is it takes all comers. The fastest of the fast and the, well, less than fast show up at the same practice and get to work out and be a part of a high school team. All of those kids will now likely be scattered to the wind.

And the same story plays out in baseball, in softball, in swimming, in badminton, in golf and in tennis.

And this roller coaster is starting to feel more down than up. More stomach-turning than exhilarating. And it’s personal.

“I’m a parent,” Haskins said .“My son is a senior on the baseball team at Montgomery.”

The prospect of this being the end as far as a parent watching their child on the playing field? It’s a big deal and a deep blow.

Haskins, for one, hopes the CIF section commissioners vote to deal with coronavirus in pieces — postponements in two-week chunks, perhaps, rather than simply wiping out entire seasons.

But Haskins, like the rest of these coaches, has been through enough hardships in the last three years to know what is likely coming in the form of an announcement next week.

Postponement? “The likelihood of that happening is very slim,” Haskins said.

Fogg said he’s almost numb at this point.

“I just get a sense that they are going to shut us down. I just get that feeling,” he said. “We are all overwhelmed.”

And while he can try to look forward and make plans for what’s next, he’s got a whole gaggle of seniors who are left with a feeling that so much is being left incomplete.

“I just feel so bad for the seniors,” he said.

Which is one of the reasons Karpinski and Bradley wanted to gather all of their kids around, even if it was to confirm how much they don’t know about this rapidly moving crisis.

They were supposed to be going over strategies and responsibilities for a home meet Saturday. Instead, the coaches found themselves telling their athletes to be safe over spring break and that they’d be in touch. Whether that will be for workouts or to turn in barely worn uniforms remains to be seen.

“We kind of said goodbye to them,” Karpinski said. “We are kind of unclear with what will happen to them.”

Or the season. Again.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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