Athletes Mourn As Spring Sports Sacked

Toms River South's Max Rivas (left) hoped for a productive senior season. However, he was robbed by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy Rivas Family)

  OCEAN COUNTY – There will be no home runs. There will be no strikeouts. There will be no goals scored. There will be no assists.

  There will be no sprints. There will be no throws. There will be no aces. There will be no birdies.

  There will be no baseball. There will be no girls softball. There will be no lacrosse. There will be no track and field. There will be no boys tennis. There will be no golf. There will be no boys volleyball.

  There will be no high school sports in New Jersey this spring as Gov. Murphy closed schools to in-person instruction through the remainder of the academic year because of the widespread death and destruction wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. His decision resulted in the cancellation of the season prior to the first game of the campaign for most teams.  

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  “It’s tough,” said 42nd-year Toms River South baseball coach Ken Frank, who leads the state in career wins (894-302) at the helm of the Indians. “The kids worked so hard to get to this season (practice for spring sports began March 6). Whoever figured there would be a pandemic? Every 30 days, they (the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association) pushed it off, but I guess they ran out of time.

  “When they said it was over, I felt bad for all of the baseball players in the Shore Conference.”

  The organization, the leading governing body of public and non-public high school sports in the state, said in a statement on its website “Following today’s announcement by Gov. Murphy, the NJSIAA has officially cancelled New Jersey’s 2020 high school spring sports season. This decision was not made lightly and we are disappointed for the thousands of New Jersey student-athletes who will be unable to compete this spring. While we remained hopeful to the end and left open every possibility, competition simply is not feasible given the circumstances.

  “The last few weeks have been heartbreaking on many levels from the tragic loss of life to thousands who are battling the virus and to the millions who have suffered emotional and economic loss. It’s been a harrowing time for everyone and we know our student-athletes are extremely disappointed. That said, these unfortunate circumstances may have put an intriguing challenge in the path of our young people. As New Jersey’s own Vince Lombardi once said, ‘It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.’ We’re confident all our kids will get back up and stand tall.

  “The NJSIAA will continue developing plans for the potential restarting of scholastic sports during the fall season. Additional information related both to the summer recess and fall will be shared at a later date.”

  Frank said he and his coaching staff will go about the painful task of gathering the team’s uniforms.

 “I have not been in school in two months,” he said. “Now, we will go in and collect uniforms. The team room will be exactly the way we left it two months ago.”

  Frank said he feels “real bad” for the team’s seniors.

  “We had a good group of seniors,” he said. “Their whole attitude during our first week of practice was good. This was a typical Toms River High School South group of kids. They did everything our past teams have done.”

  Frank has sent numerous players into the NCAA Division I ranks. However, it might be tougher for players of lesser talent to play collegiate ball.

  “A couple of our guys landed places in college,” he said. “Other players hoped to get into college and play. We won’t be able to showcase our players.”

  The latest Indians headed for NCAA Division I are Mike Montenegro, who hopes to catch for New York University, and Max Rivas. The latter hopes to play either shortstop or second base for Stetson University.

  “It’s definitely unfortunate,” Montenegro said. “Nobody expected it. Even at the start of the pandemic, we did not feel it was going to get as bad as it did. It’s a tough goodbye for sure, but now it is time to move forward.”

  Montenegro said he took it hard when he learned the campaign was over before the Indians played their first regular-season game.

  “We had a real good group of guys, a special group for the last three or four years,” he said. “We were all ready to go out there and leave it all on the field. We would give the skin off our backs to each other at the drop of a hat. We looked to do some damage and turn some heads. This is upsetting. I will play baseball in college and I am looking forward to that, but I feel bad for the guys who will not play in college. They are good kids and they love the game just as much as I do.

The senior season of Toms River High School South’s Mike Montenegro was cut short. (Photo courtesy of the Montenegro family)

  “It’s tough to say goodbye to them. The reality is that some of our players played their last game last year and they did not know it at the time. It is tough.”

  Rivas said the news of the cancellation was tough to take.

  “It was heartbreaking as we looked forward to making noise and getting coach Frank his 900th win,” Rivas said. “Everyone on the team is pretty sad about the whole situation. When I learned our season was over, I thought about all of the night games I played as a sophomore and junior. Now, I won’t get to play for South anymore and it really stinks. We win for the team and the coaches.

  “I won’t get to play again at the Ken Frank Baseball Stadium.”

  Frank said Mitch Powitz, the team’s varsity assistant coach and a former South standout, led the Indians in high tech workouts to avoid violating social distancing regulations.

  “Mitch had a couple of Zoom sessions with our boys on the computer,” Frank said. “It is tough. It’s a whole different environment. I have always been a believer in looking someone in the eye and giving them a firm handshake. Now, it appears those days are gone.”

  “Coach Powitz was real good with the technological side,” Montenegro said. “He used the Remind 101 APP to enable everyone to stay in touch. He used Google Meet and Facetime calls. He hosted virtual meetings on the computer.”

  High tech, however, failed to replace the Indians’ special bond.

  “We missed being together and being on the field,” Montenegro said. “I want to give a shout-out to coach Frank and coach Powitz and thank them for all they have done for us and continue to do. I also want to give a shout-out to my teammates as they are my brothers. I would not trade them for all of the world. I will always cherish all of the memories we made. Those memories are definitely worth it.”               

  Brick Township baseball coach Jason Groschel said his Green Dragons experienced different emotions.

  “At first, there was anger when the pandemic began,” he said. “Our kids practiced on their own and that was cut back by the NJSIAA. Our fields were chained and the police booted the boys off other fields. There were two kids playing catch on a field and the police booted them off. Their emotions turned to hope as they hoped there would be a season. Now, their emotions are grieving and acceptance.”