A little more than two weeks ago, it was business as usual for the Ketchikan High School athletic teams. And the biggest worry was making the trek from Ketchikan to Juneau on time for the Region V basketball tournament earlier this month.
But my, how the world has changed since.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has rapidly spread around the globe from China to the Western Hemisphere in that short amount of time. And its affects on every day life as was known before, have included bringing Kayhi’s spring sports seasons — including baseball, softball, boys’ soccer, girls’ soccer and track and field — as well as all interscholastic athletics throughout the state to an absolute halt.
“That was two weeks ago,” Kayhi Activities Director Melissa Johnson said on Thursday. “Two weeks ago when we got on the airplane going up to regions, no one even knew what the virus was called. When we came back, we knew what the virus was called. And then we had a case in our town (within) two days. And it was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ And now we’re like a hotspot in Alaska. It’s interesting how it just changed.”
And that, it certainly has, as the coronavirus has picked up speed.
The whirlwind of decision making, which started with the athletic directors from Southeast having the ‘Should we cancel the Region V basketball tournament?’ conversation, shifted to ASAA saying, ‘We’re canceling the state basketball tournament.’
“If the region tournament would’ve been a week later, they would’ve canceled it,” Johnson said. “... Our region tournament, we made big changes. Any games that were optional, we canceled (those). We canceled the crossover (games); we canceled the skill competitions. We were making strides. But we, at that time, were dealing with something different than what we’re dealing with now.”
And on March 13 — Friday the 13th, of all days — ASAA began a series of decisions that ultimately ended a spring sports season that never began.
ASAA stopped all activities for two weeks, until after spring break. And then moved the starting date to May 1. But that decision lasted just a few short days.
On March 23, ASAA announced that it would be canceling all spring sport activities — just 10 days removed from its original announcement of a two-week postponement.
“Our region, Region V, we all said, ‘Well, let’s try to give the kids a light at the end of the tunnel, and see how this all plays out,” Johnson said. “And if they can have a season for four weeks, it’s better than none at all.’”
But that didn’t happen.
“When (ASAA) voted on it, we got outvoted,” Johnson continued. “So then they just canceled the season. They canceled everything.”
The realism of the situation has only continued to sink further in.
“I mean, two weeks ago, we were at the region tournament and not one of us thought in a million years that there would be a pandemic, and we were going to be out of school until May 1,” Johnson said. “And we were with 1,000 people.
“... So it went from zero to 15 — skipping 10, and went to 15 — before anybody knew it. And people were making decisions. I mean, literally every single day, it felt like something knew was coming out.
“I mean, this is schoolwide and activities, athletic-wide,” she continued. “But it feels like every day something new is happening, and you’re just trying to navigate a moving target. It’s just difficult.”
Before all of spring sports was stopped dead in its tracks for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, all five of Kayhi’s spring sports were able to get a few days of practice. Although when the message was received on March 13, they had to immediately stop.
And they were never allowed to get back together.
Numbers overall were low for early turnout between baseball, softball, boys’ soccer, girls’ soccer and track and field — because students were in Juneau for the Region V basketball tournament — each sport had promise for high hopes in the Spring 2020 season.
Between all five sports, nearly 40 seniors were expected to take their respective fields, with others vying for an opportunity.
“My heart breaks for the seniors,” Johnson said. “It just breaks for them. I mean, my kids are athletes. It would just be devastating to them — not to be able to have their senior season.
“And people may think, ‘Oh it’s just activities or athletics,’” she continued. “But to them, it’s the most important thing at the time. They don’t have all of these other memories. ... And it’s like the one they were going to (have). It’s heartbreaking for them.”
Here are the stories from March 9 to March 13, and that week of spring sports:
After returning home from Anchorage with a second-place finish in the baseball state tournament last year, the Kings were looking forward to brushing off some rust, kicking up some dust, and having fun on the baseball field again.
“There were a bunch of kids, all different grades, freshmen through senior, and there would’ve been some tough decisions to make,” Kayhi head coach Andy Berntson said on Thursday.
But on March 13, everybody was kicked off the baseball field.
“We were literally in the middle of practice,” Berntson said. “So I had to kick everybody out, and tell them, ‘We essentially have no news, other than you’re going home. And just kind of wait for more notice.’ And notice has kind of trickled out (since then).”
Several expected returning baseball players were out of town for the basketball tournament. So Berntson and his staff weren’t able to hold tryouts, or set varsity, junior varsity and freshman rosters.
“It’s brutal,” Berntson said. “It’s absolutely brutal. It’s just devastating for the kids. Obviously, taking the full perspective, it’s understandable. Health of the community and kids come first. They’re two completely conversations.”
But a season without baseball is tough to swallow.
“Our kids are missing a whole year of their sport and activity, and a lot of these experiences — it’s costing them,” he said. “Our seniors missing their whole senior year, especially, is pretty tough. I know the kids are real disappointed. I think everybody involved, even though it was possible, is still kind of shocked and disappointed.”
Completely separate from Kayhi’s baseball season are the Little League and American Legion seasons.
Last Berntson had seen, Little League had pushed its sign-up period and starting dates to mid-May.
American Legion, which typically starts games in early June, hasn’t announced anything pertaining to its season, yet.
“The experiences are both very different — high school verses Legion,” Berntson said. “Different parts of the state, people take it more personally or seriously at different levels. And Kayhi baseball has been around a lot longer than American Legion.
“American Legion is a building program, and the struggle there is keeping older kids that are kind of transitioning to a workplace or a college, and having to make that money in the summer,” he continued. “... But, I think, at this point a whiffle ball game would feel good for these kids. I mean, they’re ballers. They love baseball. So anything would be better than what we’re dealing with. But Legion would certainly be a huge plus, if we could pull that off.”
That said, staying off the fields now means there might be baseball in June.
“Certainly now, that we don’t have a prospect of baseball games until June,” Berntson said. “I think everybody would be best served to stay inside, and try to make this thing go away. The last thing we want to do is not listen to the advice of people who know what they’re talking about and have this thing drag on longer, and all these rules and things canceled — our activities and economic burdens.”
The Lady Kings’ new softball head coach, Kalea Allen, had a strange feeling about Friday the 13th.
“Something just didn’t feel right,” she said. “… We kind of knew something was coming. We didn’t know when we were going to be able to touch a softball together as a team again.”
So instead of grinding out another practice, the softball team played a whiffle ball game. Two of the seniors picked teams, and Allen and her coaching staff even played.
“It was good to see the competitiveness, but lightheartedness in the situation,” the first-year head coach said. “We worked so hard that week, that I wanted them to try to have some good laughs.”
On any given day during that week in March, the Lady Kings had anywhere between six and 12 girls in attendance, due to the Region V basketball tournament.
And that whiffle ball game made that last day on the field fun.
“Now I look back at it, and I’m so glad we did (that) because we didn’t know that was going to be the end,” Allen said on Friday. “... We could’ve kept playing all night, I swear. Because once one team went ahead, the other team was like, ‘Alright, one more inning.’ It was a good note to end on, even though we didn’t know that was where we were going to end.”
The Lady Kings were 26 girls between the varsity and junior varsity squads, including six seniors.
And the group still is staying in contact for video challenges.
“I still want them to feel like a team, even though we can’t be together, and we can’t be on that field one last time,” Allen said.
Before spring had sprung, Allen had already scouted every other Division II team in the state. Every school listed at least one senior, but Kayhi’s six was the most.
“Regardless, every single team is losing a senior without a season,” she said. “So that was really hard to swallow.
“We say it’s a really long rain delay,” Allen continued. “We really don’t know when it’s going to end. So it kind of fits perfectly, when you put it into those terms.”
They’ll honor a senior each week on their Lady Kings’ softball page on Facebook.
“We’ll dedicate a week to a senior, just because we can’t all get together, and celebrate them right now,” Allen said. “I think this will be a great way to pass the time. And they can reflect on it, feel good about it, and know that they were recognized.”
Fresh off its first trip to the state tournament last season — and a third-place finish — it’s safe to say the boys’ soccer program was ready for the 2020 campaign to start.
“They’ve been ready for a year,” Kayhi co-head coach Jacob Potts said on Friday. “A whole year. And that’s a long time, especially in a high schooler’s life, to be waiting for this and the build-up.”
Potts, along with Juan Robles and Marty Martin, was entering his second season in charge of the boys’ soccer program.
The trio led the Kings to their first state tournament berth, and a third-place finish.
“It gets all built-up,” Potts said. “And it’s not built up from the day tryouts start. It’s built up from the day we got third in state last year. … And it just falls down on them. It just collapses on them.
“I mean, Juan and I, we’re bummed we don’t get to coach them, of course,” he continued. “But I feel way worse for those seniors. It’s a really tough pill for them to swallow.”
The Kings were lined up to have seven seniors on the field, and an eighth as their manager. They would’ve had 46 players throughout each level of the program.
“It’s so heartbreaking,” Robles said. “They made so many sacrifices; they did so much. And they were so excited, as a group, to redeem themselves, and do more than what they did last year.”
Everyone was working hard those first few days at Esther Shea Field.
“They were really good. It was intense,” Robles said. “Everybody was busting their butts. ... (They) were super competitive, which made it super exciting.”
But that all changed in the days that followed.
“Being from Alaska, this tiny little community on this tiny little island, like Ketchikan, you always feel like you’re so far away from that stuff,” Robles said. “… (But then) it sank in that this stuff was real; that this stuff was happening.
“We didn’t know it was going to be over. We still had a lot of hope that it would … be back in April, or May at the latest,” he continued. “But as things have progressively gotten worse around the world, it’s understandable.”
As tough as it is for the seniors, all four grades now have only three years of the sport.
“For each class, you have four years of really, really high quality sports in your life,” Potts said. “Not everyone gets to go play college soccer, or a college sport or professional sport. So this was a really big deal to these kids. Sports, in general, are a very big deal. You get to meet a lot of new people. It branches out. It’s an amazing thing. Sports are an amazing thing. They bring us all together.
“So for all of our kids — freshmen to senior — especially the seniors. Now, all of these kids are only going to get three years of that. ... These are really big opportunities that a lot of these kids are never going to get again.”
If there’s one thing the Lady Kings’ soccer coach Neil Kinunen began to see in his team within the first few days, it’s that they’re resilient.
“The girls are tough,” he said. “They’ll rebound; they’ll respond, and move on to the next challenge whatever it is. There are a whole lot of kids all over the country — all over the world — in the same position. So they’re not alone.”
The Lady Kings were prepared to have a large turnover from last season. But it was the young group’s energy — not a virus — that was contagious during that first week.
“We had quite a big turnover from last year. … Probably like 70% of the squad was new,” Kinunen said. “... But they were a fresh, young group that were super excited.”
The Lady Kings had 25 girls in attendance from March 9 to March 13, including five seniors.
The group was even able to get outside a couple days.
“We were inside the first two days, outside the next two,” Kinunen said. “So it was nice getting outside; the weather was good. ... We were excited for the season, and getting back together. And then we get four days together, and that’s it. ... The season’s over before it pretty much started. That’s disappointing, but more important things are at stake.”
Throughout the process of ASAA pushing dates further and further back, the Lady Kings still had hopes for some kind of a season, even if it was just a few games.
“(We thought) maybe we’d get a couple weeks at the end of May, just to get one or two weekends of games just for something,” Kinunen said. “... It’s definitely disappointing. It’s an exciting part of the year for most of our girls.”
But even the rest of the year is up in the air.
“Yeah, with prom and graduation,” Kinunen said. “It’s probably going to be online the rest of the year, and how’s that going to work for them. So they’ve got a lot of things they’re going through. Realistically, soccer should be toward the bottom of the list. But you don’t realize how much you need it, until you don’t have it.”
Track and Field
The track and field team was never able to race around the track at Esther Shea Field this season.
Although the final day of practice, the squad was able to get outside.
The team from Kayhi ran down to the promenade, and finished outside of Arctic Bar, before returning to the high school. They said their goodbyes at the end of practice on March 13, and continued on their way.
That was the last time the team was able to practice together.
“It was probably my best turnout for preseason,” Kayhi head coach Alex Pennino said. “We started a week late, so we had an extra week of having these workouts. And I had a good number of kids working really hard. It was going to be a great season; had a great group of kids. It was really positive.”
Even missing several athletes due to the Region V tournament, Pennino was expecting to have 50 participants this season on the track and field team.
About a quarter of those athletes were in their senior season.
“It’s hard to build interest in it, and we had a lot of new kids come out for the team this year,” he said. “And it’s like, ‘Man, we’re getting kids into it. Getting them excited about it.’ You know, seeing what they do this year and hopefully do next year. They get in it; they like it. And now it’s just all gone. So you’ve just got to start from square one next year.”
And square one includes learning all of the motions that go into each event, and getting timing between handoffs into a fluid motion.
“People think you’re just running around a track. But doing the handoffs take a lot of practice — all of the jumping, all of the field events — it’s a million different little motions that they’ve got to master. And unfortunately for a lot of them, one year of learning how to do is one that they’re not going to get back.”
All that said — like every coach at Kayhi — Pennino understood this was all for the greater good.
“It’s unfortunate, but (it’s necessary to) make sure the virus doesn’t spread,” he said.