There was always a reason to be optimistic and have hope. As long as the University Interscholastic League was using words like "suspended" and putting out deadlines for a return, then it made sense to keep athletes involved and engaged.
Just like around much of the state, Texoma was no different. The way to keep a team together was a little bit different and the practices were a little more individual. Whether the sport was soccer or softball, baseball or golf, tennis or track, Sherman Bearcats and Denison Yellow Jackets and S&S Rams and Howe Bulldogs were waiting for the word they could practice again and prepare for competition.
That announcement, however, never came. Instead it was the worst of all outcomes — the UIL was forced to cancel all remaining spring activities and state championships for the 2019-20 academic year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“I never would have imagined dealing with something like this,” Bells head softball coach Kristina Stephens said. “It was heartbreaking when we heard. Waiting for the UIL to make a statement was torture. It’s hard to put into words. You’re grieving a loss for a season that’s not going to happen.”
And while it seemed to an inevitable decision, it still hurt.
“I will forever miss playing with my best friends,” Sherman senior girls soccer player Bailey Tillotson wrote on social media. “Heartbroken that we cannot finish the season, but grateful for all of the memories I got to make.”
Added Sherman senior softball player Kenna Ferguson: “Never thought this is how my senior year would ever go. I just wanna thank God for letting me play the little bit I did this season! I’m really gonna miss playing with these girls!”
No matter what the reason, there was something to compete for during these final months of careers that finished too early.
“Had a cast on freshman and sophomore year,” S&S senior sprinter Devin Jackson said. “Last year had worse race of year at district…sister was sick in hospital. I just wanna run.”
It was a bitter ending for several area programs more than others. Van Alstyne’s boys 1,600 relay was the defending Class 3A champ and Whitewright’s Jace Andrew was looking to better the silver medal he won in the long jump as a junior. The Pottsboro boys and girls golf teams, Van Alstyne baseball team and Whitesboro tennis players Paige Banks and Caleb McCoy were looking to get back to state. The Bells softball team was a threat to win a third state championship in four years.
“I have three senior girls and a senior boy. It’s a sickening feeling knowing it’s their last time competing and you don’t even know it,” said Pottsboro golf coach Greg Nix, whose teams played just one tournament this spring. “It’s been a good group of kids. On the boys side it was going to be more of a battle to get there. On the girls side, we brought everybody back and added some players. We had a shot to win it, definitely finish top three.”
But it also hurt every corner of the roster — for the seniors, especially those who weren’t playing past the end of the season and had their final opportunities to compete taken way, to the juniors and sophomores who achieved their goals of making the varsity roster, to the freshmen able to jump right in and make immediate contributions.
“I’d do anything to put on a GT jersey one last time,” Gunter senior shortstop Bryson Rigsby wrote on Twitter. “It’s been a hell of a ride.”
The UIL gave a pair of reprieves, first with a two-week suspension to go through the end of March and then another that would last until May 4. At the time it seemed reasonable enough — nearly seven weeks for things to calm down and maybe get somewhat under control. But the number of cases and deaths, both in Texas and nationwide, continued to rise and more than two weeks before the most recent deadline the UIL followed Gov. Greg Abbott’s lead.
"That was the biggest deal — it was too much of a risk to have that many people around each other," Van Alstyne head coach Jimmy Haynes said. "I kinda felt like if they opened up parts of Texas I thought they might be able to let us play. I was disappointed for all my seniors. We had a chance to make another good run. The expectations were really high. For some of those seniors, they were never going to play baseball again. That's heartbreaking."
Abbott announced that schools would remained closed to in-person learning through the end of the academic year. It was a signal for what was about to come next.
Hours later the UIL made the decision to cancel, just the latest governing body across the country to do so.
“I knew if we went back to school at all, we were going to play,” Stephens said. “But it’s kinda out of their hands, they had no choice once school was cancelled.”
The question about how this school year would end finally received an answer. Now all eyes turn to what is ahead on the calendar. The start of the next athletic year is not as far away as you would think. Volleyball and cross-country can begin practicing on August 3. Football starts August 5. That is barely 100 days away.
At some point there will be questions about if those sports can begin on time. The football season-openers are on August 28 but volleyball can hold matches starting on August 10.
“I’m an optimistic person we’ll get to do something. It’s a good target date the first of July to see where we are,” Denison athletic director and head football coach Chad Rogers said. “Right now my heart goes out not only to the seniors and athletics but one-act play and the academic competitions. A lot of memories that won’t get made and that I know I won’t take for granted going forward.”