The ballparks and fields have fallen silent.
This past week across Acadiana, not a single player stood along the third and first baselines with hats over heart for the playing of the national anthem. There was not a single note of walk-up music played at Lafayette High or St. Thomas More. There wasn’t a single yell of “come on, blue” shouted from the stands at Breaux Bridge High or Beau Chene, and there wasn’t a peep of the crowd roaring to its feet for a game-winning hit at New Iberia Senior High or Sacred Heart in Ville Platte.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. John Bel Edwards declared that all K-12 schools be shut down until April 13, and the LHSAA then suspended the spring sports seasons until further notice. That means not only not playing any actual games, but the immediate halt of team activities such as practices. The halt of high school sports here in Louisiana is unprecedented and one that has stunned even the most veteran coaches.
“They say if you live long enough you can see anything,” STM’s longtime head baseball coach, Gary Perkins, said. “I am 67 years old and this might be the icing on the cake.
“It definitely shocked the world and definitely shocked the spring sports here in the Acadiana area,” Perkins added. ”We just got to keep on keepin’ on.”
An unexpected walk-off
Dale Serie began Friday, March 13 focused on how his young team could continue to improve. Despite losing several starters from the Division III state championship team the year before, the Notre Dame softball team had begun the 2020 season with an impressive 10-1 record and looked to be building momentum as the team geared up for the Teurlings Catholic Tournament.
Then Serie, and the rest of the Lady Pios, found out the shocking news.
“My girls began to find out on the bus and we had to tell them before the game,” said Serie, whose son Cayden is a pitcher at Mamou High. “The emotions were high and they began asking questions that I didn’t know how to answer. They were asking how long was this going to last and why was it happening? A lot of the kids were under the impression that it wasn’t that big of a deal. They asked me were we ever going to play again? I didn’t have an answer.”
With emotions all over the place, Notre Dame lost 8-6 to NISH.
“It was one of the weirdest games we have ever played,” Serie said. “No one was sharp from the players to the coaches. I went out there three times with the defensive card. It just wasn’t the same team. Even in between innings we didn’t even cheer.”
In St. Martin Parish meanwhile, Cecilia’s Cody Champagne was going over final preparations with his softball team during the fourth block of study that Friday. Champagne was in the midst of having his team packing the bus to leave for the Delcambre Tournament. Cecilia was scheduled to take on Lafayette High that afternoon at 3:30. That’s when the Lady Bulldogs coach got a call that the Mighty Lions would have to cancel.
“So I called the Delcambre coach and told him that we might not come either because we didn’t know if we had someone to play. It was about 20 minutes later and coach had got us someone. We headed out there and played Loreauville. We lost the game but we got to play that day and then again the following day.”
While some schools were still able to get in a few final games before the weekend, the Lafayette High baseball team did not. The Mighty Lions had just celebrated a 15-1 win over Iota in the Eunice Tournament the night before to improve to 10-1 overall.
Lafayette High was set to play its second game on Friday.
“The first thing we heard was the Lafayette Parish School System was shutting down,” said Lafayette High head coach Sam Taulli, who is in his 35th season in charge of the Mighty Lions. “They told us that the governor was going to make an announcement in a few hours. I had the No. 1 team in the Class 5A power rankings and then we can’t play. It is pretty frustrating.”
The stunning news floored the players from around Acadiana.
Even though Chipper Menard has experienced plenty in his young life having grown up around the game (his father Chad is the coach at NISH), the two-time all-state pitcher and University of Louisiana baseball signee was taken back by the decision that came down that Friday.
“I was literally shocked,” Menard said. “I don’t even remember what my first thought was. I was really thinking how am I going to finish the year the way it was meant to be. We all envisioned we were going to the state finals.
“To not have that chance — I can’t think of the word for it,” Menard added. “You give up hope. Why is this happening to us? This is our senior year. No one wants their senior year to be cut short.”
End of the road?
This season was what the Southside High baseball team had been working toward.
After two years of playing a junior varsity and freshman schedule, the Sharks were making their varsity debut this season. Even without having a home field at the high school — the team was set to play home games at Fabacher Field — the excitement for the season was immense.
“We were very excited to get started,” Southside baseball coach Andre Boudreaux said. “Our juniors and seniors left established programs to come play for us and grind it out in games that didn’t count for two years. We were ready to show everybody what we have been doing the past two years.”
“We’ve been working our butts off for nearly three years and we finally were able to come out and do our thing,” said senior right hander Carson Hall, who transferred from STM after his freshman season. “We were all super hyped about the season because we were finally putting it all together.”
After losing six of its first seven games, Southside began to turn a corner playing more competitive games and had high hopes entering the Eunice Tournament. Then came the news.
“We were putting our cleats on to get ready to play and then coach tells us that it might be our last game,” Hall said. “Coach told us ‘I know you know the situation so just go out there and play.”
Southside went out and played its best game of the season, defeating Eunice 15-0 while Hall threw a no-hitter.
“We needed to treat that game like it was our senior night because we didn’t know when it would end,” Boudreaux said. “I told our four seniors that and all four got a hit in the game. If it was the final game it was a great way for them to end their careers.”
The joy of throwing a no-hitter and getting a win soon turned to sadness as the realization that the season may have just come to an end.
“That bus ride home sucked,” Hall said. “It felt like those three years were wasted for nothing. It felt like it was taken away from us.”
For seniors playing baseball and softball in college, last week the NCAA granted those players an additional year of eligibility. A star softball pitcher like University of Louisiana’s Summer Ellyson or LSU’s Matthew Beck could come back and play another season if they choose.
The senior ball players in high school have no such option.
“I feel sorry for all the seniors — just not our group of seniors here at Beau Chene but all seniors,” said Thad Dickey, who is in his 19th season at the helm of the Gators softball program. “They weren’t allow to have one last practice with their team. Weren’t even allowed to say goodbye or thank you.”
For many of the players, they have been playing the game since they were five years old. This is the only thing they know to do during the spring.
“This is what I have done for about 15 years,” said Sacred Heart of Ville Platte senior second baseman-pitcher Christian Duplechin, who missed most of his junior season due to injury. “To think that the season is coming to a halt now is heartbreaking. I mean I would do anything to play with my teammates again. It is our senior year and it is supposed to be unforgettable. You talk to any of the old ball players and all they talk about is their senior year.”
“The prospect of not being able to complete the season is frustrating for everyone involved,” Menard added. “But none more than those seniors who could not play another game together. This will suck if that happens.”
For Kyle Cormier, the suspension is even more difficult.
Breaux Bridge is coming off a Class 4A state runner-up season and had nine seniors on the roster, including Cormier’s son, pitcher-shortstop Keegan. The older Cormier, in his 20th season as the coach of the Tigers, has been coaching this particular group of kids since they were eight or nine years old and was looking forward to having one last season with his kids.
“I remember after we would wrap up varsity practice we would let those little rug rats take the field and practice afterwards,” Cormier recalled. “Look, I know that this is bigger than all of that but for these high school kids their lives revolve around baseball, school and each other. To not have that is devastating.”
What is on deck?
The environment right now is surreal for teams.
Not only do the area’s softball and baseball coaches don’t have teams to coach, in fact coaches are not even allowed to conduct practices. So in addition to having the season suspended, the coaches can’t even do what they are the passionate about — coach.
“We’re basically not allowed to coach anything,” said Dickey, Beau Chene’ softball coach. “We got strict guidelines from our parish superintendent that there can be no form of practice on-and-off campus.
“I am in contact with my kids and we are reminding them that we are thinking of them, and to stay busy and stay active,” Dickey added. “We entrusted them to stay on top of the game.“
With so much such disappointment and uncertainty in the air, how are area players and coaches trying to remain positive?
“The kids just need to keep busy at home even if it is throwing balls against the wall or whatever,” Taulli said. “A lot of these kids grew up not doing anything in their backyard. Everything was done at the park. Well now they will make the adjustment. They are probably driving their neighbors and parents crazy, but at least they are working.”
“I hope they are in someone’s backyard hitting off the tee or throwing or something,” Perkins said. “That way if we did decide to come back we don’t have to come back from scratch.”
For players like Duplechin and Menard, that means trying to keep a routine whether that is mimicking a school day or getting in some swings with a teammate.
Duplechin wakes up early, works on his school assignments (which he stretches out to take up more time throughout the day), then in the afternoon he goes out and throws in his backyard and utilizes the batting cage at his home.
“I am just trying to keep in my mind that we are preparing for a new season,” Duplechin said. “I am just treating everyday like a normal day.”
“I have been going out with some of the guys but not the whole team because of the CDC recommendations,” Menard said. “Some of us have batting cages in the backyard so we have been getting in some work in that way. I have just been working out and just waiting for the whole thing to blow over.”
So what happens if the state government and LHSAA allows the spring sports to return? How will that work logistically? Will the season be extended to get games in and allow teams to practice?
Dickey sees it as a monumental challenge.
“The LHSAA and the state are looking at April 13th as a possible return date right?” Dickey said. “So your team comes back and you have one practice and then the playoffs. I don’t know how they are going to do the rest of the season or any of it, if they are going to expand the season, are they going to stay with 32 teams or drop that number? There is a lot to be figured out.”
Dickey also points to the difficulties for the players to be ready to play.
“How can you ask a pitcher that is not game ready to go out there with one practice under their belt and perform?,” Dickey said. “How can you ask a hitter to go out there and hit when they are not ready. I want to see us come back and do something but in the back of my mind we may have seen the end of spring sports this calendar year.”
For some of the coaches, extending the season to at least finishing the regular season with senior nights and having a postseason is the most ideal.
“If the LHSAA wanted to push the playoffs back a week or so, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with that,” Taulli said.
“Even if it is a June and we are having senior night that would be fine,” Cormier added. “That would at least let the kids get some closure if June is even a possibility.”
As devastating as the situation might be, the coaches are making sure their seniors and the rest of the team understands the severity of the situation.
“We don’t know the entire story about this virus,” Champagne said. “By staying home we are maybe saving lives. Maybe by doing this one of our player’s grandfathers can see them play again.”
“We can only pray now that we get a better close to our season than the one we are experiencing right now,” Perkins said.