By Trey Williams
Many Unicoi County spring sports participants are finding ways to utilize and enjoy the massive amount of spare time that materialized when the coronavirus pandemic shut down their seasons.
But many, particularly seniors such as softball catcher Bella Bogart, are still trying to make peace with the stunning turn of events.
“My senior season was supposed to be the one I was going to remember forever,” Bogart said, “the one that contained unforgettable memories with my team and hopefully bringing home some championship titles back to our school. But because of the coronavirus it got stolen from me and my teammates. I worked my butt off for 12 years for this one season and to get it taken away was one of the most heartbreaking experiences I’ve had.”
The closure of schools, initially set until mid-April and since extended through April 30, was announced on March 16.
“When we got the news school would be closing I broke down into tears in the office,” Bogart said. “I felt as if all my hard work had been for nothing. I immediately texted my team and we met in the bathroom and cried together. I remember hugging Kiley Bennett and telling her, ‘We aren’t done yet. We’ve worked too hard for this to be the end. We still have people to prove wrong.’”
Athletes still continue to develop their skills on their own.
“My team and I aren’t allowed to be on the field but every day we are continuing to improve and get better as if we will take the field again,” Bogart said. “We still want a chance to go win our district and region, get that home substate (sectional) and eventually end up in Murfreesboro for a chance to win state.
“It makes me angry and heartbroken that this is happening and I haven’t found a way to put it into words yet. There have been many nights where I cried myself to sleep because I haven’t been able to cope with that I might not ever play softball again.”
The jarring news wasn’t without silver linings. Life has slowed down, which ain’t all bad.
Unicoi County soccer coach Justin Ciralsky has knocked out some spring cleaning and other home projects, and enjoyed time with family, including “getting creative with activities for kids.” He’s also done some hiking.
Unicoi track coach Thaddeus Higgins went on a three-day hike (March 19-21) with his brother Cameron and fellow former Blue Devil standout Halie Hawkins, each of whom had their track and field seasons canceled at Milligan College. (Their hike occurred before more stringent social-distancing recommendations had been issued.)
“On behalf of the athletes, I think the biggest thing for us is to stay active, but find safe and healthy ways to do that in this situation,” Hawkins said. “We have to be smart and really limit who we are around. … I am continuing to run and do vaulting drills on my own.”
Hawkins sees the glass half full.
“We have gotten our garden going,” she said. “We are cooking at home, which is making it easier to eat healthy. I have also had more time to ride my horse, which has been a really nice escape from all the uncertainty and changes.
“As a college athlete, everything moves so fast as you juggle practices, meets, classes and so on. It’s been nice to kind of slow down. With track being a team sport, we have all built very strong relationships with one another, but with the recent events we have not gotten to practice with one another. On the bright side, we have all continued to stay in touch, which is a sign of a strong team. We are all just trying to stay optimistic and positive and keep sight of the big picture.”
Unicoi baseball coach Chad Gillis is mowing his yard instead of a baseball field.
“I really don’t think my yard has ever been mowed in March,” he said. “When in season, it usually gets done sometime in April.”
Gillis is thankful for the extra family time, as well as the time to organize his closet and room that contain his hunting and fishing gear.
“I have gotten to fish more this spring,” he said. “While coaching JV I had more time to tournament fish with my brother. Fishing was a sacrifice I knew I had to make when I took the varsity job. It’s nice to get to spend extra time with my brother while ‘social distancing’ ourselves on the lake. …
“Jace – my 3-year-old son – and I have watched replays of Braves games. I learned he wants to be a catcher and wants equipment now.”
Atlanta Braves replays can be teaching moments for Gillis, too.
“During the offseason I find ways to expand my knowledge of the game/coaching,” he said. “I have notebooks filled with notes from podcasts, articles or conversations. This is typically hard to do during season, but with the downtime I have picked back up on this.”
Unicoi County freshman sensation Lucas Slagle was primed for a baseball season that might’ve matched his impact on the basketball court, where he averaged a double-double. But instead of throwing fastballs at radar guns, he’s shooting guns.
“I have been hunting and fishing mostly,” Slagle said.
He also continues to work on baseball while slowly digesting the thought of losing his freshman season.
“I’m still hitting and throwing to stay in shape,” he said. “It’s awful to potentially lose my freshman season, but it hurts me the most to see our seniors potentially lose what they have worked their whole life for.”
Sooner or later, Bogart will come to grips with a senior year that wasn’t to be. For now, however, it still seems like a lifetime of investments was stolen.
“Even though times are hard right now I keep telling myself that there is purpose in this pain,” Bogart said. “I haven’t yet figured it all out yet but what I have learned is that you should always cherish your friends, hard work, love and support, the crowd cheering you on, practices, games, success, failure – all of it, because that is what makes you who you are and that is why the game of softball has forever shaped me into the person I am.”