As the calendar turns to 2021, the same question remains for prep sports — when will they start again?
That question is almost as old as COVID-19 itself, save for a handful of fall sports. The year changed Friday, but we’ll need to continue to practice patience before we have any answers.
Vernal Turner has been deeply involved with basketball as a player, coach and official for about 40 years, currently serving in a variety of officiating roles that span from high school to the National Basketball Association. The member of the Illinois Basketball Association Hall of Fame 2021 class said similar to a freshman in high school wanting to play varsity or a young official wanting to move to the next level, those involved in sports at all levels must keep their patience amidst the crisis.
“We have to understand that this is a situation that’s not normal to any of us, but it’s a situation that if we are patient ... we can get through things without being in an even tougher situation,” Turner said. “We [have to] work on our patience more than anything.”
Practicing that patience can be a daunting task any time but especially for this long and with so much uncertainty and darkness that has come with the pandemic. Bishop McNamara football coach Rich Zinanni, who is preparing for his first spring football season in his 46 years of coaching, said perhaps the most important aspect of prep sports is preparing student-athletes for handling adversity such as this.
“Ups and downs happen in life, in school, in whatever, but it’s how you handle it that matters,” Zinanni said. “We’ve kept up with the kids and done some service work that they’ve responded to. But it’s adversity when a lot of these kids haven’t played sports in a year and a half, especially for the seniors.
“You [just have to] look at the bright side and stay positive.”
Zinanni is preparing for a new type of season about 50 years into his tenure, but Bradley-Bourbonnais girls basketball coach Liz Bart is waiting for her first season as head coach to begin, about two months after practices initially were set to start.
Bart does have familiarity with her girls after serving as an assistant to former coach Evan Tingley, but as she tries to form her own culture, being held to Zoom meetings and conditioning hasn’t been the most ideal setting for laying a new foundation.
“I want to be a coach who gets to know her whole program and make every girl feel welcomed,” Bart said. “I feel like the more you build a relationship with each athlete, the more trust and success your team will have overall.”
Central senior Jacob Shoven has been held out of sports since his Daily Journal All-Area basketball season ended last March. The three-sport athlete in basketball, football and baseball also is ready to get back on the field and court for the relationships but not to form them — to finish out the ride he’s been on with his classmates.
“My sports goal for 2021 is simply just have one more go around with my guys,” Shoven said. “Luckily, I have offers to play in college for football, but high school football has [given me] some of the best memories of my life.”
St. Anne athletic director Kate Shutter remembers those relationships her children, Kennedy and Kobe, formed during their own athletic careers at Bishop McNamara. Shutter empathizes with parents and players who are being stripped of more and more opportunities to make memories of their own.
“To miss out on the opportunity to support my son or daughter doing something they loved and worked so hard at would be heartbreaking,” Shutter said. “While I realize there are bigger issues in the world during this pandemic, I cannot deny the fact that these student-athletes and their families are missing out on some of the best times of their lives. I am truly saddened by this.”
The sadness eventually will turn back to elation when the sports scene regains its steam. But even when that begins, the pandemic still will be here, and the patience those involved in athletics are practicing now will need to continue long into the return to “normalcy.”
“Everyone gets knocked down with problems; it’s how you respond to them that’s crucial,” Zinanni said. “This thing is over, and it’s gonna be here for a while. We hope football isn’t over, but there’s no guarantee of that.”
Zinanni is right that there’s no guarantee of a football season this year, one that will be joined by girls volleyball and boys soccer as fall sports that were pushed to that spring slot. Low-risk winter sports such as bowling, boys swimming and diving and competitive cheer and dance will be the first sports to return, but the jury still is out on when that will be.
Shutter seemed to speak for everyone when she talked about the excitement that will be felt when sports do return.
“Even though things still seem uncertain for high school sports in Illinois, one thing is absolutely clear: Cardinal Nation is ready to get back out there to compete and to cheer on all student-athletes.”