Spring sports teams handle canceled 2020 season in different ways

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Saint John Vianney High School softball pitcher Julia Parker fires in a pitch during a game against Middletown High School North last season at Saint John Vianney High School. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Colts Neck High School baseball player Robert Mannino smacks a base hit during a game against Middletown High School North last season at Colts Neck High School.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School girls lacrosse player Jordan Johnson is honored during the team's Drive By Senior Day this spring. PHOTO COURTESY OF ASHLEY O'KEEFE
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Senior catcher Andrew Sefick suits up behind the plate for the Jackson Memorial High School baseball team during a game played last season. PHOTO COURTESY OF JACKSON MEMORIAL BASEBALL BOOSTER CLUB
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Saint John Vianney High School softball pitcher Julia Parker fires in a pitch during a game against Middletown High School North last season at Saint John Vianney High School. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Colts Neck High School baseball player Robert Mannino smacks a base hit during a game against Middletown High School North last season at Colts Neck High School.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School girls lacrosse player Jordan Johnson is honored during the team's Drive By Senior Day this spring. PHOTO COURTESY OF ASHLEY O'KEEFE
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Senior catcher Andrew Sefick suits up behind the plate for the Jackson Memorial High School baseball team during a game played last season. PHOTO COURTESY OF JACKSON MEMORIAL BASEBALL BOOSTER CLUB

The crack of the bat. The announcement of runners: take your mark. Game-winning goals and spikes galore. Those were the moments high school spring sports athletes and coaches were looking forward to during the 2020 season.

The global coronavirus pandemic put a halt to all those fun moments of the spring sports season that was officially canceled on May 4 when Gov. Phil Murphy announced New Jersey’s schools would be closed for the remainder of the academic year.

In a statement, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) said, “Following today’s announcement by Gov. Murphy, the NJSIAA has officially canceled 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 association said.

COVID-19 dealt a tough blow to New Jersey’s scholastic athletes. It cost individuals their senior season and teams lost out on a spring that could have featured state and conference championships.

The Jackson Memorial High School baseball team had a talented squad that was prepared to make a run at a second state sectional title in three years and a Shore Conference Tournament championship.

Seniors Carmine Petosa and Ryan Lasko were set up to lead a powerful Jaguars lineup that would go along with a solid pitching rotation led by junior right-hander Matt Potok and senior left-hander Nick Beetel.

“We had a great crop of kids coming back,” Jackson Memorial Coach Frank Malta said. “They all put a lot of hard work in during the off-season and you wanted to see that pay off during the season. We wanted to see them compete one more time.”

Malta said the team saw the decision from the NJSIAA and the governor coming, but said it didn’t make it easier when it was announced as the players were very disappointed the season was canceled.

Entering what would have been his 16th season at the helm, Malta said he feels for his players and especially his seniors.

“The seniors on our team and the seniors across the state are losing out on their last chance to compete at the high school level and play with kids they grew up with. Those are great memories they are not getting the chance to make,” Malta said.

Malta is hopeful he will be able to give his seniors and the rest of the players in the program an opportunity to play together this summer.

The coach said the team has a plan in place if restrictions are lifted this summer.

“Everybody is all in for three-and-a-half weeks of practice and inter-squad scrimmages,” he said. “When things let up, we are going to come together.”

Playing against other teams in the area is another possibility, Malta said.

The Allentown High School baseball team is planning to hold similar activities if allowed, with all players expected to come together for team practices, Coach Brian Nice said.

Allentown was coming off a 14-10 season in 2019 after reaching the Group 3 final the previous two years. With nine seniors, led by Jack Nitti and Danny McCormick, Allentown was set up for a turnaround season in 2020.

No matter what the expectations of the team were going into the season, Nice said the season being canceled is disappointing.

“Nobody thought after our practice on March 13 that it would be our last one for the whole season,” Nice said. “We thought maybe we would just be away for a week or two at first. Regardless of how good of a team you are, it’s still disappointing not to be able to play.”

The season’s cancellation affected many high school baseball players who were looking toward this spring as a chance to help them in their aspirations to play in college and professionally.

Colts Neck High School senior Robert Mannino is among the players who lost out on a chance to impress college teams this spring.

Mannino, who is a resident of Marlboro, jumped onto the scene in the Shore Conference with a solid sophomore year.

He followed that season with a terrific junior campaign by hitting .368 with two home runs and 12 RBI. He had a .538 on-base percentage and slugged .632, despite missing time and dealing with a shoulder injury all season.

Mannino’s shoulder prevented him from taking his place behind the plate at catcher and stalled his recruitment process.

Feeling closer to 100% coming into this spring, Mannino was ready to have a great senior season to attract more college interest, but COVID-19 stopped that plan in its tracks.

“I felt lost when I heard the news, to be honest,” Mannino said. “I worked really hard in the off-season. I didn’t get the opportunity to have the senior season I wanted to have. It was tough.”

Shore Regional High School senior catcher Cody Fleischer was coming off a 2019 season during which he earned Shore Conference A Central Division honors and batted .317.

“I worked really hard in the off-season. I was driven to have a great year. Everyone on the team was ready to have a good season,” said the Blue Devils’ catcher.

For now, Fleischer plans to attend Lackawanna College in the fall.

Mannino is still undecided about what he will do next, but said he will most likely do a post-grad year.

Mannino and Fleischer said they would be up for the chance to play in any type of senior all-star game or summer league if restrictions are lifted.

Both players are motivated after losing out on the 2020 season to make the most of the chances they get going forward.

“My motivation is to be myself and keep moving forward,” Mannino said. “You never know what opportunities are going to come next.”

To the circle on the softball field, Saint John Vianney High School pitcher Julia Parker is another senior missing the chance to contend for a championship.

Lancers Coach Kim Lombardi said it is sad not to be able to see Parker and the rest of her squad take the field this season.

In Lombardi’s eyes, it is a missed opportunity for players to take their game to the next level and for those who were going to get their first chance at getting to showcase their talents on the diamond.

“It’s very sad for all our seniors and everyone on our team,” Lombardi said. “The seniors wanted to accomplish a lot this year. You are sad for the players who were finally going to get their time to shine. It affected everyone.”

Lombardi has made it known to the players who are returning in 2021 that it is important to work hard in the off-season after they missed out on a chance to develop their skills more this spring.

As for any possible activities in the summer, Lombardi said the team has nothing planned, but if someone wants to play, the Lancers would be ready to go.

Over to the sport of lacrosse, the Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School girls lacrosse team was hoping for a consecutive trip to the state sectional championship game.

With a team featuring 11 seniors, Coach Ashley O’Keefe felt bad her squad was unable to compete this spring and make their own market as a unit.

“Each year is a different group and as a coach, you love to see what they can accomplish together,” O’Keefe said.

During these challenging times, O’Keefe has tried her best to tell each of her players to keep positive. She said the players have done a great job pushing each other along and being there for each other through everything they have faced this spring.

Since her seniors were not able to have a Senior Day, O’Keefe, her coaches and underclassman helped organize a Drive-By Senior Day to honor each of the 11 players who will graduate in June.

Because the team also was not able to hold its annual Kickoff Party this spring, O’Keefe said the players are hoping to be able to throw a combined Senior Day/Kickoff party in the summer.

Summer league games and inter-squad scrimmages are other activities O’Keefe hopes her team can take part in over the summer.

“We are keeping our fingers crossed for a summer tournament of sorts,” O’Keefe said. “Hopefully we can get some games in and give the seniors some closure.”

A Senior Day activity is something the Red Bank Regional High School track and field program is hoping to hold this summer for its senior athletes, girls track and field Coach Brendan McGoldrick said.

Every year during the last practice before the state sectional meet, seniors from the boys and girls squads participate in the Seniors Last Lap: All of the seniors jog in a group around the track as their teammates and coaches cheer them on as a way to honor them for their hard work during the last four years.

McGoldrick is hoping that at some point during the summer, them members of both squads can get together and honor the seniors in that way.

With the 2020 season being canceled, McGoldrick and the coaches from both teams helped to set up a virtual event for their athletes.

Each sprinter or distance runner would time himself of herself in an event in which they would have competed during the season.

Throwers would send in their marks from throwing the shot put, javelin or discus. Jumpers and pole vaulters would do the same.

“We had a very special class of senior athletes,” McGoldrick said. “It is very difficult for them not getting the chance to compete for the last time in high school. These are life lessons we all can learn from. Hopefully we can also get together in the summer and send the seniors out the right way.”