COVID-19 claims spring sports, leaving many to ponder ‘What if?’

Standing on the field at T-Bones Stadium in Kansas City, Kansas, where he works as a groundskeeper, Zach Brown ponders what might have been had COVID-19 not taken his senior season of baseball. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

by Todd Habiger
todd.habiger@theleaven.org

Lush, freshly cut grass adorns sports fields across Kansas — fields that now lie quietly empty, devoid of the athletes that usually come to test their skills on them. An eerie silence surrounds these places that are usually filled with cheers and laughter and moans and groans this time of year.

COVID-19 has claimed many victims as it has torn through the United States, including the spring sports season for Kansas high schools. Athletes and coaches alike have lost something precious to them — time that they can never get back.

The Leaven talked to five spring sports athletes and one coach to see how this spring COVID-19 has robbed them of the sport they love.

Comeback season never gets off the ground because of pandemic

Zach Brown was back.

After missing the 2019 season of baseball at Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kansas, with an injury, Brown — now a senior — was ready to make his triumphant return to the field as a pitcher and center fielder.

Then COVID-19 happened.

“I was really heartbroken. I was looking forward to my senior year and having fun with the underclassmen and showing them what Ward baseball is all about,” Brown said.

Five days before the first game of his junior season, he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, which caused a blood clot dangerously close to his heart.

“It was tough and scary and really sad that I wasn’t able to play last year with that senior class, who I had a lot of fun with and went to state with my sophomore year,” he said.

His comeback was grueling. He had surgery in June 2019 that involved removing four muscles, two ligaments and a rib bone. He lost 20 pounds. He couldn’t start physical therapy until August. It wasn’t until January that he could even throw a baseball.

But by the time March came around, Brown felt he was ready to play and was hoping to duplicate Ward’s strong run in the 2018 state baseball tournament that saw the team finish as the state runner-up.

“I was going to try to take this team to state to show them how much fun it is,” he said.

His injury and now COVID-19 took away two years of baseball and have left Brown with a sense of emptiness.

“Baseball has a big part of my heart,” he said. “It’s one of the things I love most besides my family. This happens and I wonder, ‘Why can’t I just do what I love the most?’”

Still, Brown knows he can’t dwell too much on the past while so much of the future still remains.

His love of baseball has led him to a job with the Kansas City T-Bones as part of the team’s grounds crew.

And he may not be done playing baseball. He has an offer to play for Avila College in Kansas City, Missouri, which he is strongly considering.

Brown knows he’s been dealt a tough hand, but he also knows there’s no going back.

“Life isn’t easy,” he said. “I’ve grown up knowing you’ve got to work for what you get. Who knows what can happen? You have to enjoy life while you can.”

Legendary girls soccer coach ends career off the field

This was supposed to be Craig Ewing’s swan song. After 32 years as the only head coach in St. Thomas Aquinas girls soccer history, Ewing announced that 2020 would be his last season as a teacher and girls soccer coach.

Ewing had built a dynasty at the Overland Park school, winning 16 state championships and finishing as the runner-up four times. He had reason to think he could go out on top one last time. After finishing as the state runner-up last year, his team was ranked No. 3 in preseason and returned three seniors, who Ewing expected to be key starters for his squad.

Ewing coached the girls on March 11 for the team’s annual Blue and Gold inter-squad scrimmage and liked what he saw.

As the St. Thomas Aquinas girls battle in the team’s annual Blue and Gold inter-squad game, head coach Craig Ewing looks on. The match would be the last of his 32-year girls soccer coaching career, as COVID-19 ended his farewell season before it even got started. PHOTO COURTESY OF CRAIG EWING

“The girls were so enthusiastic,” he said. “They were so excited about getting ready to play.

“I was excited.”

It was the last time he got to coach the girls.

“There was some uneasiness at that time about the whole situation with the virus,” Ewing said. “A few coaches had talked about perhaps losing some of the season. I didn’t even consider that it would wipe out the whole season. I didn’t give that a thought.”

When the season was canceled, Ewing’s first thought was for his three seniors — Kate Muckerman, Maggie Ryan and Emily Nielsen.

“Those three are just great kids,” he said. “They’ve been really great for the program and they’re all good soccer players.”

Now, like everyone else, Ewing is sheltering at home. And for the first time in more than 30 years, he isn’t spending every spare moment designing game plans and preparing his girls for competition.

“That feels weird to me, but I’m going to have to get used to that anyway,” he said.

Ewing is spending his final days at Aquinas teaching remotely — something that works, but really isn’t a substitute for being there in person.

“It’s weird not finishing the school year in the classroom,” he said. “We are doing Zoom meetings Monday, Wednesday and Friday for class. It’s gone fine, but it’s not the same as seeing the kids in class.”

As he reflects on his coaching career and its abrupt end, Ewing isn’t sitting around feeling sorry for himself. But for his players? That’s a different story.

“I’ve coached girls for 32 years. I’d rather not have it end like this, but I feel worse for the athletes — especially the seniors,” he said. “I got to do this for a long time. I had a lot of fun. I had a lot of success.”

But the seniors?

“This was their last time. They don’t get to do it again.”

Coronavirus offers up a strange new world for St. James track star

Strange. There’s just no other word for it for St. James, Lenexa, senior track star Katie Moore when describing life in a coronavirus world.

“Our whole life has shifted because of this,” Moore said. “My whole week would look different [were it not for the virus]. Friday nights I would be at a track meet and getting ready to race. It’s kind of an adjustment.”

Katie Moore will run again, just not as a member of the St. James track team. The senior record holder in the school’s 800-meter run will continue her career at the University of Iowa. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

As a track recruit committed to the University of Iowa, Moore does her best to stay in shape. But as someone whose best races are the 400 and 800 meters, Moore needs time on the track.

“There’s been a lot of track closings, so it’s difficult getting on a track,” she said. “But I’ve been running around my neighborhood and on the street to keep me going and in shape.”

Moore started running competitively in the fifth grade with her mother as her coach.

“It was very lighthearted and fun back then,” she said.

But soon her competitive nature bubbled to the surface and there was no turning back.

“I really got into it and enjoyed competing,” Moore said. “I still had fun practicing with my friends and teammates but, as I got older, I really started to enjoy the competitiveness of the sport. And it’s just gotten stronger.”

She has excelled at it. Moore holds the school record for the 800-meter, as well as the 4×400 and 4×800 meter relays. In 2018, at the Kansas state track championships in Wichita, Moore and her teammates set a state record in the 4×800 meter relay in which she ran the anchor.

“When I got the baton at state, I knew everyone had done great and done their part and I just had to finish up and cross the line,” she said. “It was so cool. Everyone was hugging at the finish line. It was really special.”

In Moore’s three years on St. James’ track team, the girls finished as the state runner-up in 2017 and 2018 and state champions in 2019.

Moore isn’t dwelling on losing her senior season, but rather thinking of the good times that led her to this point.

“Track has meant so much to me beyond just competing and my love for the sport,” she said. “I’ve met so many amazing friends. Your competitors become your best friends. It’s kind of crazy because you’re trying to beat them, but you’re all united for the love of the sport.”

Hayden senior says goodbye to her first love — softball

When she heard the spring sports season was being canceled, Hayden, Topeka, senior softball player Sydney Hillmer burst into tears.

“I remember sitting on the couch with my parents and I started crying,” she said. “I hate to admit it, but I wasn’t expecting it at all. I was really, really looking forward to this season and having a senior night and hopefully finishing with a state title.”

Softball has been a part of Sydney Hillmer’s life for as long as she can remember. After coming up short of a state championship last season, Hillmer believed the 2020 version of Wildcat softball had the right stuff. PHOTO COURTESY MOLLY HARMON PHOTOGRAPHY, WWW.MOLLYHARMONPHOTOGRAPHY.COM

For Hillmer, it’s a bitter ending to something that has been a huge part of her life since she was 5 years old. She grew up playing softball with her dad as her coach. The game created a special bond between the two.

“He loved watching me play. We had that bond because he grew up coaching me,” she said. “It’s definitely been hard on the both of us.

“We kind of reflect on it — all the memories, all the things we were looking forward to.

“We just try to understand that this is God’s plan for us, and we have to control what we can control and let it all happen.”

But letting go hasn’t been easy. Hillmer has started as a catcher for Hayden since she was a freshman. In the past two off seasons, she’s worked with former major league baseball player Ken Berry to improve her hitting. And after coming up one run short in the regional round to eventual state champion Augusta High School, Hillmer felt that 2020 could be the year Hayden took home the state championship.

“We had a great team chemistry. I could tell that from only practicing a few days,” she said. “We all really wanted it, especially our seniors. We all knew we could do it, too.”

Now that chance will fall under the category of “what might have been.”

As she waits out the coronavirus pandemic, Hillmer longs for the action on the field and the chance to build stronger relationships with her coaches and teammates.

“I miss suiting up and catching and hitting — but mostly being around the girls and the fun memories and everything that comes along with that,” she said.

The pandemic has taught her that she can never take anything for granted.

“This has definitely been an eye-opening situation — my senior year ending so abruptly and not having softball,” she said. “It’s opened my eyes to live every moment as its your last because you never really know if it’s going to be taken away from you or not.”

Three-sport athlete makes the best of a tough situation

Abe Siebenmorgen likes to keep busy. As a three-sport athlete at Maur Hill-Mount Academy in Atchison, Siebenmorgen is used to having his days and nights filled. Why should things be any different because of COVID-19?

Instead of competing on the baseball field this spring, Siebenmorgen has transferred his energies elsewhere.

“I’ve been able to do some of the other things that I really enjoy — like being outdoors,” he said. “I’ve gone fishing plenty. Turkey season is starting. And lately I’ve gotten into woodworking. I’ve been able to do some things that I haven’t been able to do in years past because I’ve been involved in sports.”

As an all-league pitcher in 2019, Abe Siebenmorgen helped Maur Hill-Mount Academy baseball to an undefeated regular season.

Not that he doesn’t miss baseball. He misses it a lot.

But rather than dwell on the negative, Siebenmorgen chooses to focus more on the positive.

“Right now, I’m just trying to make the best of it,” he said. “It’s been nice and refreshing to stop, take a breath and do some other things.”

Still, Siebenmorgen can’t help but think what might have been. As an All Northeast Kansas League pitcher and a strong hitter as well, Siebenmorgen led the Ravens to an undefeated regular season in 2019 and the No. 2 ranking in the state. The team would lose their only game last year in the regional championship game to Sabetha High School, which went on to take the state championship.

He thought this year’s Ravens baseball team could be even better than last.

“I felt that this was our year,” Siebenmorgen said. “We had a couple of promising freshmen coming in that had played on traveling teams and were very productive. I really thought this year was our year to make our run and go to state and try to take the title.”

Unfortunately, the Ravens aren’t going to get the chance to prove Siebenmorgen right. Despite not getting to finish out his baseball career as he would have liked, Siebenmorgen has great memories of the game.

“I’ve met a lot of people playing baseball. It’s taught me a lot of core values that I stand on today — like hard work,” he said. “It’s especially true at Maur Hill. We have a lot of pride on the field and we put a lot of time and effort into the game.

“It wasn’t always the most fun thing, but it has taught me some skills I can take on through the rest of my life.”

Even with his disappointment in not getting to play his final season of baseball, Siebenmorgen has a good attitude about it.

“It’s disappointing not to be able to finish my senior year,” he said. “It’s disappointing not to be able to finish baseball. It’s really disappointing.

“But I’m trying to make the best out of it and stay positive because a lot of people have it a lot worse.”

Soccer star regrets unfinished business

In her three years as a member of Roeland Park’s Bishop Miege girls soccer team, Sophia Stram has won three state titles. Because of COVID-19, she won’t get a chance to win a fourth.

“It’s hard not representing our school and being with the girls I love to play with,” she said. “Some of my best friends are on the team. And lately, we just reminisce about our past three seasons.”

Sophia Stram leaves Bishop Miege as the school’s all-time leading scorer, a feat she accomplished in only three seasons. Although her Miege career is over, she will continue her soccer career at Saint Louis University next year.

In last year’s Class 4A state championship game, Stram was a beast, scoring four goals in the first half to lead Miege to a 4-0 victory. But it was her third goal that garnered the most attention. On a pass from a teammate, she stopped the ball — with her face — and while the ball was in midair, launched a sideways kick that soared just past the outstretched hands of the goalie and into the net.

“I was trying to chest the ball to settle it, but it hit me in the side of the face and really hurt my jaw,” she said. “I just decided, I’m going for it. It usually wouldn’t go in if I shot it like that.”

Not only was it a spectacular shot, but it also gave her the Miege record for career goals.

Stram started for Miege since she was a freshman. She counts winning the state title that year with her two older sisters as one of the highlights of her career.

She was hoping to continue that career this year by adding to her career goals record and winning a fourth state championship.

“I know that this year’s team was going to be really strong,” Stram said. “We were going to be really young, but everyone was really talented. I saw last year’s seniors get a fourth state championship win. I was hoping that we would get to carry on that tradition.

“Not just for the soccer program but for the school.”

If she has any regrets, it’s not being able to play on the new turf at Dixon Doll Stadium before a home crowd one last time.

“Even though we didn’t have as many fans as football, we still had good crowds,” she said. “I’ll miss every small thing that played a part in a home game — the introductions or just looking up in the stands and seeing my parents.

“I loved Miege and I loved playing at that field and the community behind it.”

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