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As fields sit idle, Diocese of Wilmington coaches, players confront frustration while keeping situation in perspective

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On a beautiful spring afternoon in late March at Archmere Academy, the setting was just about perfect. The grass was groomed, and the infield dirt was pristine. The sky was blue, with the perfect complement of fluffy clouds. But the Auks’ softball team would not be taking the field that afternoon or any other for the forseeable future.

The novel coronavirus outbreak has shut down schools in the Diamond State, and that also meant the absence of spring sports. Archmere softball coach Dan Pisani was looking forward to a season with an experienced roster, including six seniors.

“These are kids who have played big roles for us in the past.” Pisani said. “At least four of them would be four-year starters this year. Definitely kids who have earned the right to have a memorable senior year.”

Archmere senior Jack Nielsen, a member of the baseball team, summed up the situation fairly succinctly.

Coaches Field at Archmere Academy would normally host the Auks’ track and field and girls soccer teams this time of year. (Dialog photo/Mike Lang)

“I’m probably going to miss my senior year season. But for as long as I’m stuck at home, it’s more time for me to get even better. It’s an extended offseason now. It’s time to reload and get ready for the next time I’m going to get on the field,” he said.

Nielsen, a pitcher who will be attending East Stroudsburg University, said the players had a feeling this season was in jeopardy once the initial school closures were announced in mid-March.

“It’s been kind of known, unspoken, that the season was going to be canceled or, at the least, mega-postponed. But a lot of us didn’t give up. I didn’t. I’ve still been going outside, working out, staying loose,” he said.

One of the disappointments for the Auks is not having the chance to play for their new head coach, Nick Sanna, an Archmere graduate who has been a longtime assistant at Saint Mark’s.

“He pushed us the first week of practice. He let us know that he wanted to win. I really appreciate that week. We really could have done something. I hope maybe a miracle comes along and we’re able to play some games this year because we’d be able to do some damage,” Nielsen said.

Salesianum lacrosse coach Bob Healy said his group was looking forward to fighting to reclaim the state championship it lost last season to Cape Henlopen. The Sals and Vikings had been scheduled to meet on April 3.

“Our senior leadership has been outstanding, so I feel especially bad for them not being able to compete after putting so much into the program over the last four years,” Healy said. “Our goal is to get back to the championship game. We also know that every program in the country is going through these difficult times, and it puts a lot into perspective.”

Demonstrating leadership from home

Another senior who has had some time to reflect is Ursuline lacrosse standout Maxine String. She’s been thinking about the 10 days or so of practice the Raiders conducted before the plug was pulled.

“It’s disappointing, it really is,” she said. “I think about what could potentially have been my last practice, and I kind of go through those two hours every day, constantly thinking about how much harder I could have worked at that ground ball drill, or I should have yelled the cheer at the end of practice a little louder. It’s just the little things that keep going through your head.”

The pitcher’s mound is covered at Canby Park, which serves as the home for St. Elizabeth’s baseball. (Dialog photo/Mike Lang)

She would walk to her car each day after practice thinking she’d return tomorrow, “and never in a million years did I ever think I wouldn’t be back there. It’s really hard.”

String, who will play collegiately at Jacksonville University, is one of just three seniors on the team. She is taking her role as one of the captains seriously, even as the Raiders are stuck at home.

“As a senior captain this year, one of my goals was to do everything to the best of my ability to lead my team to state championship title as well as every other senior captain in the state,” she said.

“We’ve all have been trying to just be there for each other. Sending motivational texts, videos on keeping in shape because you never know if we will go back. Our main goal if we do go back is to be one of the top-conditioned teams in the state.”

String, who has 91 career goals, has been working out at home with her sister, Audrey, a junior defender for the Raiders. Maxine feels for her sister and the other juniors who were counting on the season for college recruiting.

“This was supposed to be a huge year for her,” String said.

She is reminding her sister and the other juniors that everyone is in the same boat. It will make their senior campaigns that much more important.

She said she tells the juniors, “Instead of thinking about what this year could have been, think about what you guys are going to do next year as leaders.”

Salesianum lacrosse routinely fields a team full of young men who want to play collegiately. Healy said the recruiting time frame will adjust as necessary.

“I really think there will be a focus on the summer and fall recruiting circuit, which will help players be exposed to college coaches,” he said.

String’s teammate, junior Hope Kenney, said the Raiders were excited about the possibilities for 2020, especially after losing 12 seniors to graduation. The Raiders have reached the state tournament semifinals the past three seasons.

New bleachers at Salesianum School wait for spectators. (Dialog photo/Mike Lang)

“It was a big year for us to come out and show the state that we’re still good and still able to play super-competitive with these other teams,” said Kenney, who is not sure if she will be playing in college.

Kenney was excited about the possibilities of new faces stepping up for the Raiders, “especially since our senior class last year was so dominant. They were amazing. I, personally, was looking forward to going out there with a whole different mindset and completely new lineup. Everybody would have that equal opportunity to go out and show what they could do. It’s upsetting, but we have to make sure everybody’s safe.”

Hoping for some spring action

Still, as the days pass, all three athletes and the two coaches are holding out hope that they will be able to have some sort of season.

“We’re all hoping that this goes away pretty quickly, but we also understand that this is something that is necessary for us to do. It’s just to ensure the safety of everybody. We’re definitely hoping that we’ll be able to play a few games because we’ve been working super-hard,” Kenney said.

Archmere’s softball field is ready for game action. (Dialog photo/Mike Lang)

Pisani echoed that sentiment.

“Can we get these kids out on the field for some kind of experience to end the year?” Pisani asked. “My hope is if we do get our kids back in school this year, that we can find some way for everyone to get to play some games.”

Each of the athletes said they had been working out on their own. Archmere’s training staff is posting a workout each day on social media. At Saint Mark’s, members of the track team have been pushing each other through video challenges.

The Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association has not closed the door entirely on spring sports. The DIAA will continue to monitor the situation as it gathers information from various sources.

“DIAA leaders understand this is a disappointing, frustrating and stressful time for all involved,” executive director Donna Polk said in a statement released earlier this week. “We will get through this together, and one day when the time is right, we will play again.”

Pisani hopes that is this spring.

“My heart really breaks for these kids. My hope is we can all find a way to lift these kids’ spirits when this is all said and done. They need some good news; they need some kind of win right now.”